Class brings humanities to high school

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Students in low-achieving high schools are often required to take double periods of basic reading and math, a strategy that aims to raise their skills up to grade level. But Harlan High School is trying a different approach: Placing a group of middle-tier students in a higher-level humanities program.

This fall, the school began offering the Clemente Course/Odyssey Project. The Odyssey Project is designed to get students—who are at or close to grade level—involved in the humanities and teach them how use the knowledge in everyday life. Harlan is the first high school in the city to offer the course, which covers topics such as philosophy, literature, art criticism, writing and history.

Some of the students were recommended by the 8th grade elementary school counselor, while others signed up on their own.

The goal is to boost confidence and allow low-income and struggling students to see past those obstacles, says Amy Thomas Elder, the director of the Odyssey Project for the Illinois Humanities Council. The council coordinates the Harlan High program, which is modeled after a similar course that is offered to low-income adults looking to further their education.

“We want to get students who are interested in reading but may not be doing too well in classes,” Elder says.

The program aims to achieve its goal by offering the students an education that they would be likely to get at an elite school, Elder says. Four college professors—recruited by Elder and by Earl Shorris, who designed the original Clemente Course—and a high school teacher teach the classes, in which students learn about famous historical figures and writers such as Aristotle, Plato and Edgar Allen Poe.

Elder admits that there’s still some discussion about how to teach some of the material. “It’s hard to determine whether to spend the class period trying to explain the concepts and the vocabulary or go directly to the discussion,” she says.

The course is offered in conjunction with AVID, another program for middle-tier students that helps prepare them for college by teaching study skills, reading for content, note-taking and time management. The first period of the day is a humanities course and the second is AVID.

Eventually, Elder would like the high school program to offer college credit, as does the one for adults.

Shorris, who designed the Clemente Course in 1995 in New York City, is helping to design the program for Harlan students. He says low-income adults and teenagers are too often deprived of learning about the humanities.  

Helping low-income adults

Adults who want to get into the Odyssey Project must be able to read a newspaper either in English or Spanish. Applicants are also interviewed.

With only a high school diploma, Eloise J. Hendricks says that the humanities were only touched upon in classes. She says the Odyssey Project is an “amazing, eye-opening experience.”

The Clemente Course/Odyssey Project being offered in Chicago is offshoot of the original class in New York City. Shorris believed that a course in the humanities would provide low-income people with educational opportunities they had not received, from faculty “with the knowledge and prestige that students might encounter in their first year at Harvard, Princeton, Yale, or [University of] Chicago.”

The course is based on the belief that anyone, if given the opportunity, can transform his or her life.

In 2001, the Odyssey Project was brought to Chicago and has expanded to four locations on the north and south sides, in the Loop and on the West Side in Spanish.

The Odyssey Project/ Clemente Course is offered in 14 states and in foreign countries such as Argentina, Australia, the Dominican Republic, Mexico, and Korea.

Valerie Waltson, an adult student in Chicago, began one course in 2006 and is currently taking another course. Initially, when Waltson took the first course, her goal was to get her mind off a difficult family situation. She also was inspired by her daughter. “I heard my daughter and her friends speak of art in such a profound manner, that I wanted to do it too,” she says.  

Now Waltson says has more confidence and can have better conversations with her daughter.