Second in a series of four

The hardest part of secondary education is getting to know 150 students. On average, secondary school teachers have 30 students in a class and teach five classes; so 150 students, more or less.

To tell you the truth, I try to learn something about each of my students. To tell you the whole honest truth, I’m not getting to 150 fast enough or even at all.

Nevertheless, it is important that I and all teachers do our best to communicate with all of our students. Studies will tell you, as will practical experience, that students have better attendance and graduation rates when they have someone in school they can rely on and confide in.

So why do secondary schools assign classes this way? A century ago, schools prepared students for life in a factory, so the curriculum reflected that. Even the teaching was an assembly line model with teachers doing the same routine five times a day. We need to bring this outdated system into the 21st century.

I propose that we simultaneously reduce the number of students a secondary school teacher has each year and replace the factory style implemented in our secondary schools. To do this, teachers teach more than one subject to the same students. We can effectively halve the number of students a teacher has while still bringing together for students topics arbitrarily dissected by the learning factory model.

For example, I am a Latin teacher. I could also easily teach English or history to the same students. In this way, I can explicitly link concepts, themes, trends both in literature and in human development. As things stand, we can only hope that students will make cross-disciplinary connections.

Certainly, some teachers collaborate on the subject. As a ninth grade Latin teacher, my main translation focus is Julius Caesar’s “Commentaries on the Gallic Wars.” The ninth-grade teacher down the hall is teaching “Julius Caesar” by William Shakespeare. We discuss among ourselves what Shakespeare understood well and what he “Disneyfied”. I’ve even been known to make an appearance in English class wearing my gown.

While such cross-disciplinary magic can happen now, it’s more by accident than design. The English teacher mentioned above and I are neighbors in the hallway, so we are talking. It’s not that the school specifically sets aside professional development time so that we can co-plan our homework. And even if the school did, each of us would continue to teach 150 students.

Imagine if I taught the same students Latin and English. I would schedule both topics every day. I would be able to discuss in each class how grammar and vocabulary words connect. I tell my English class how Julius Caesar essentially perfected the one-paragraph essay. I could show my Latin students how studying Cicero’s speeches is a great way for them to approach their English essay. The examples are as innumerable as they are fertile.

Although not all schools offer Latin (shameful), all schools have ways of bringing together subjects that have been artificially divided. Schools could bundle their math and science lessons, their arts lessons, and their English, history and science lessons, or however they want. After all, no subject has evolved in isolation from all other subjects.

Imagine a teacher teaching her students both literature and biology with Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” as her first course of study in September. Bioethics would no longer be an intangible concept, it would be…wait…alive!

The amazing thing is that we already have this “merger” in our elementary and middle schools. We all take it for granted that students have one teacher in kindergarten but seven teachers in high school. When my kids were in sixth grade, they had what I call combined grades. They had a combined math/science class called STEM and a combined English/history class called humanities.

When I saw how their homework had led them to apply pre-algebraic concepts with science and use essay writing practice to discuss civil rights issues, that’s when I started thinking we should make high school less fractured. Last year I taught English language arts at summer school.

When I spoke to students (at four different grades, from three different schools, on two different platforms – in person and Zoom), I brought up examples from the ancient world related to their readings of “The Fire Next Time” by James Baldwin. Just as people should not live separate lives, neither should our subjects be so divided.

Of course, even if Boston took a more unified approach to learning, the transition would take time. Principals should design subject pairings and teachers should work to develop new curricula. Planning would require both time and dedicated funds. However, we shouldn’t let implementation be a barrier to a better learning experience for students.

There are so many creative and beneficial ways to help our students, let’s not hold back for fear of challenges or mistakes. We ask a lot of our students, we should ask no less of ourselves.

Michael J. Maguire is a professor of Latin at Boston Latin Academy, serves on the board of directors of the Boston Teachers Union, and is a self-proclaimed candidate for superintendent of the BPS. The ideas expressed here are his own.