Humanities Center summer program teaches classics to local high school students | BU today

You would think Plato and Seneca would be far from the mind of any Boston high school student in mid-July. Think again.

A Boston University Center for the Humanities (BUCH) program, funded by a grant from Teagle Foundation, brought 11 underserved, low-income high school students from the Boston area to BU – virtually, this year, because of COVID – to study the classics and help them prepare for college. All are aspiring juniors and seniors with higher education in sight and an eagerness to participate in the discussions.

“We spend our summer days learning something,” says Meryem Hakkaoui, a junior at Malden High School. “Not everyone would like to do this, but we all chose to do it. Everyone is really interested and everyone wants to learn.

In a Zoom class with James Uden, associate professor of classical studies at the College of Arts & Sciences, they covered alliteration, assonance and hyperbole, as well as a poem by WH Auden and Pieter by Brueghel Landscape with the fall of Icarus, while they were understanding the tragedy in the classics. Hello, Medea and Prometheus and Dionysus.

“Normally in high school they’ll post a picture on the board and ask you to do an ‘I see’ and ‘that means’ kind of thing,” says Roxane Leon, an elder at Malden High School. “With this course, it’s more like, what’s the story behind it all?” Why do you think the artist said it this way? What is the real meaning behind this, what does it say about Greek life? And what do these people who are only minding their own business, and the bird on the tree in front of Icarus mean?

“I always knew college would be different from high school,” says Leon. “But just from the first week only it’s so different, but I like it so much better. Professor Uden was so passionate about what he taught. He actually wants you to understand him and interact.

“While attending the classes, I was impressed by the students’ mastery of the material presented to them, by the way they engaged with the ideas and pushed their teachers to offer more,” says Susan Mizruchi, director of BUCH. “The teachers all said they would like to have some of these students in a BU class.”

Called The One and the Many at BU, the first goal of the program is to spark enthusiasm in high school students for the humanities, while improving their reading, writing, analysis and presentation skills, as well as giving them a preview. taste of university life. The latter goal was a bit more difficult this year, as COVID meant the program had to go virtual rather than host students on campus.

Students from John D. O’Bryant School of Mathematics and Science in Boston, Everett High School and Malden High School were recruited in partnership with Jamaica Plain-based Boston summer search, the local branch of a national organization serving high school students facing systemic oppression.

Participating high school students and James Uden, CAS associate professor of classical studies, during a Zoom course in mid-July. Screenshot by Christine D’Auria

“I am struck by the maturity and preparation of these students,” says Mizruchi, William Arrowsmith professor of humanities and English professor at CAS. “I thought they would be at a different level than college kids, but a lot of these students could walk right into a college class and be ready to discuss any number of humanities topics. I think they could analyze and participate fully with any group of undergraduates.

“Yesterday, they were analyzing Leni Riefenstahl’s film Triumph of the Will“, says Mizruchi,” and their knowledge of the Holocaust and their ability to examine from all angles the complex ethical issues that a work like this raises was astounding. Reflect on the dilemma of being a filmmaker in the Third Reich and her responsibility for what she creates there. I have been struck on several occasions by the mastery of so many subjects discussed. ”

The grant is part of Teagle’s Knowledge for Freedom program, which uses thought-provoking texts to get students to think about complex questions, including: What is freedom? What is virtue? What is social good? The New York-based foundation’s $ 300,000 grant funds the program for three summers.

“We want to make sure that all students have access to an education that allows them to study great texts, books that expand their understanding of themselves and the world they live in, and the time to consider the most. big issues of humanity, ”Tamara Tweel, a Teagle program director specializing in citizens’ initiatives, said in February when announcing the grant.

The program focuses on works from ancient Greece, lyrics by leading 19th-century American public intellectuals, and influential documentary films. The faculty includes Uden, Paula Austin, CAS Assistant Professor of History and African American Studies, and Marisa Milanese, Senior Lecturer in the CAS Writing Program.

“These students certainly did not come to Aristotle, Virgil, Homer and Sappho with preconceived notions that these are elite texts,” Uden explains. “It was exciting for me to see students who don’t come to Aristotle thinking, ‘Oh, I have to learn the basic text of Western philosophy,’ but thinking, ‘Here is a voice, and I will test it against mine. assumptions and see what I can learn.

“I enjoyed learning more about the Greek gods and what they did,” says Gilles Theligene, a final year student at Everett High School. “My favorite was the god who was kidnapped by pirates, and because he felt offended he turned them into dolphins.” (It would be Dionysus.)

During the three-week program, students spent mornings attending three-hour seminars and afternoons attending extracurricular activities, working on their speaking and writing skills, as well as participating in virtual lunches with professors; and topic-oriented events. like food justice and movie talks.

“It seemed like a great opportunity to get to know people and see what it’s like to take classes there (at the BU),” says Hakkaoui. “I also felt like I didn’t have a lot of opportunities to learn humanities in high school. So that seemed like a great way to see if I find it interesting or maybe not. “

Being on Zoom did not dampen the enthusiasm of the students. “I like to learn from these teachers because they are very interactive, even if we had the small end of the stick” thanks to COVID, says Hakkaoui.


An intellectual community can be created online.

Susan Mizruchi, director of the BU Center for the Humanities

“As of this week alone, I’m just super excited for college so I can attend classes like this, because it’s so interesting and so much fun to be a part of it,” Leon says.

The faculty, after a year of virtual teaching experience, “have been excellent at bringing students into the conversation and bringing them to life in a Zoom format,” Mizruchi said. “An intellectual community can be created online. She believes this year’s cohort may have been limited by the pandemic; next year, she hopes for a larger group.

“Are we looking forward to next summer when we can have these students on campus, when we can feed them in the mess halls and show them around campus and take them on field trips to places like Walden Pond?” Yes we are, ”she said. “I hope I can twist the arms of these faculty members and have them come back next year to do it in person. But I think it was a great success.

A proof ? Retention is sometimes an issue for summer programs, as the season offers so many tempting alternatives, she says. But The One and the Many at BU didn’t have a single student to take off. And that’s even if two of the students were traveling to visit their families; one logged in from Honduras and another participated part of the time from Pakistan.

“I think it’s a great thing for the University to attract more high school students,” Uden says. “I hope that in the future it might expand the type of high school students who apply to BU, who feel they could possibly be able to study successfully at the university level, that we instill that confidence in them. .

“And certainly from a classical literature teacher’s perspective,” he says, “if we see a more diverse range of students in our classes and interested in classical texts, that would be a wonderful thing.”

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