Class 11 Examines America's Past

“You should be in a space where you can stretch out,” instructed Sarah Rutledge, Head of Upper School Arts and Integration and a Dance teacher, as the Class 11 students logged into a recent virtual meeting of “The American Experience,” a far-reaching interdisciplinary course reimagined for Chapin’s Distance-Learning Program.

Ms. Rutledge and her colleagues, History teacher James Ginty and English teacher Katherine Burd, had planned a robust morning exploring issues that shaped the early 20th century, including racism, sexism and the Women’s Suffrage Movement. Before the class of 30 divided into groups to embark on discussions, Ms. Rutledge led everyone in a lively exercise.

“How many of you have heard of Martha Graham before?” she asked, scanning the “boxes” of her students’ faces. A few raised their hands or clicked the “thumbs up” icon on their computers. Ms. Rutledge then gave a brief overview of this revolutionary artist, who grew up in Pennsylvania and is considered the mother of the modern dance movement.

Ms. Rutledge noted that Martha Graham (1884-1991) danced and choreographed for more than 70 years and was known for her “power poses,” which projected elegance and strength. In honor of the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment granting women the right to vote, the Martha Graham Dance Company, which advances Ms. Graham’s legacy, conceived of “19 Poses for the 19th Amendment.”

After sharing slides of a Martha Graham dancer beautifully demonstrating each of these poses, Ms. Rutledge asked the students to “engage wholeheartedly” in the next activity, even if it was outside their comfort zones. Standing up and moving into the center of their areas, they gamely positioned themselves in a variety of striking stances, following along with Ms. Rutledge. The students – and teachers – appeared to enjoy this restorative, history-inspired warmup.

“I feel far more awake after posing,” declared Ms. Burd with a smile as she and Mr. Ginty transitioned to the next components of the class. Clicking links on their laptops, the students were directed to new cyber classrooms, where, for the next hour, they proceeded to dig into thoughtful dialogue about transformative events in American history. 

In Ms. Burd’s section, the students continued their analysis of “Black Boy,” Richard Wright’s memoir chronicling his experiences coming of age in the segregated South. With a shared screenshot of essential questions as their guide, this group of scholars vigorously debated the nuances of the celebrated book and its intersecting themes of race, identity, religion and family.

In smaller breakout groups, the students further examined the powerful tensions within “Black Boy,” offering insightful observations, while actively listening to one another. “I think Richard’s mother is a really good mom. What do you think?” one remarked. “She provides him with such good life lessons and does her best given the circumstances,” her classmate agreed.

Down the virtual hallway, Mr. Ginty turned his attention to the Women’s Suffrage Movement  and the 19th Amendment, which was ratified on August 18, 1920. After receiving introductory materials through the “chat” function, the students took a few moments to familiarize themselves with this historic milestone in American history. Their teacher then posed a provocative question to the group: “How free and how equal are you in today’s world if you identify as a woman?” 

The students were asked to jot down their ideas. Mr. Ginty added more food for thought. “How big a role does the suffrage movement play in the ways that people are disenfranchised?” After mulling this question over, one student noted that the U.S. has never had a female president (yet). “Without dismantling prejudices,” she said, “we are equal in theory but not in practice.” Another stated that “women of color were left out of the 19th Amendment.” 

The class also learned about the second wave of feminism, characterized by the fight for reproductive rights, and the contributions of pioneering activists like Margaret Sanger (1879-1966) and Alice Paul (1885-1977), before dispersing to another set of breakout “rooms” to consider the impact of this momentous time in our nation’s past.

“So, what do we think?” asked Mr. Ginty when all his students were together again. “Was this time period worthy of the ‘progressive era’ moniker?” Expressing a popular sentiment, one student said, “It was a step in the right direction and a means to enact further changes down the road, but it wasn’t equality for all.” 

Through the boundless lenses of dance, literature and history, this energetic and informative “American Experience” class – seamlessly conducted online – offered Class 11 much to contemplate. An unforgettable morning indeed.