When A History Teacher and a Language Teacher Decided to Collaborate, They Inspired Students—and Each Other

Chinese Teacher Lee Kerk encourages Upper School students as they discuss international law and human rights 

On a recent afternoon, a group gathered at round tables to examine the pressing issues of the world. 

“He censors everything that’s against him,” one person could be overheard saying.  
“China’s behavior appears globalist,” someone else noted nearby. “Their priority is power.” 
A few clues—a Taylor Swift sticker on someone’s laptop, a half-eaten box of chocolate snacks, and a Squishmallow on the table—gave away the fact that this was not a conversation between delegates at a UN Assembly. These were high school juniors and seniors from two different Upper School classes, Advanced Topics in Chinese: Chinese Seminar and International Relations: Global Politics and Contemporary Issues, talking about international law and human rights. Meeting six times during the semester, their agenda also included the international powers of China, Russia, and India, as well as China’s environmental progress and UN Sustainable Development Goals. 

This collaboration is the first year that Mandarin Teacher Lee Kerk and History Teacher and Freshman Dean Christy StoryHA have joined forces. The partnership between their classes is designed to not only expose students to global topics, but to also cultivate their active listening and expert teaching skills, such as presenting, critical thinking, research, and assessing sources in multiple languages from multiple perspectives. At the end of each presentation, students use rubrics to evaluate their own performance and that of their peers.

“You never know what you know until you try to teach it to someone else,” explained Dr. Story. “And they have exceeded any expectations I had.”

Presentations may be over, but the class isn't. It's reflection time! History Teacher Dr. Christy Story helps a student evaluate herself and her classmates, both as expert teachers and active listeners.

Ms. Kerk has also noticed that her Chinese language students have become more fluent and confident. Typically, they are not ready to participate in abstract conversations in Mandarin until the following semester. “But because of this collaboration, this year I see it happening,” said Ms. Kerk. Even the quieter students are speaking up,  she added, proudly. Her students also learned Chinese faster this semester, leaving her more time to devote to Chinese literature and other topics.

At the end of last academic year, Ms. Kerk and Dr. Story were looking into professional development opportunities. That’s when they both realized they had a lot to learn from one another and their curricula had some similarities. So, with the assistance of a Castilleja summer teaching grant, the two decided to work together. As a result, not only did they infuse new energy into their classrooms, but into their own work, too.  

“I thought [Dr. Story] would be a great mentor to work with,” said Ms. Kerk, who has a Master’s degree in Education and has been teaching for 28 years. “I wish I could have had her as my history teacher when I was in high school. Believe it or not,” added Ms. Kerk, her voice turning to a whisper, “history was my least favorite subject. But now I love it! And I grew so much. I see history now—it’s like wow, boom!” Ms. Kerk made an explosive gesture with her hands. 

“For me, it was exciting because I believe in experiential collaboration,” said Dr. Story, who has a PhD in Modern European History and has been teaching at Castilleja for over 21 years. “[Ms. Kerk] came in with all these pedagogical tools. She knew the design for lesson planning. She had lots of insightful ideas. It sparked our own process of learning and reinvigorated our practice,” Dr. Story said. 

“This is what it does!” added Ms. Kerk, nodding.

The two did an enthusiastic fist bump across the table.  

Dr. Story still remembers how Ms. Kerk brought her a steamed sweet potato during their summer meeting. “It was so nourishing and so wonderful. You just feel so taken care of.” 

Their joint class convened in mid-December for one last round of presentations. Students, bundled in sweaters and hoodies in the morning hours, discussed China’s environmental policies and their impact on Kazakhstan and beyond. 

“The U.S. is a really good example that has an effect on emissions and isn’t doing a very good job,” said one student to her small group. “Climate change is going to affect all countries.”

“During COVID, the U.S. borrowed another trillion dollars, just pulled it out of a hat,” said a student at a table nearby, shaking her head disapprovingly.

“Although the article that we read is measuring the impact in China,”  noted another, “there are actually impacts in other countries.”

“That’s what I was worried about,” her classmate added.

The class wrapped up with Ms. Kerk leading students in a Chinese cheer, clapping the beat with her hands. She then invited everyone to enjoy freshly made potstickers, buns, and sesame balls with red bean paste.

“Your learning happens best when you’re in charge of it,” announced Dr. Story, beaming and congratulating the students. “I gave you themes, but you are the ones who did this because of the amazing Casti students that you are,” she added, as the students munched on their treats and prepared to head off into the last full week of the calendar year. 

Students are enjoying authentic Chinese food as part of their interdisciplinary learning experience on the last day of class: potstickers, buns, and sesame balls with red bean paste.

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