Advancing Skill Development Since 1878: My Day as a Freshman

By Bart Bronk

I recently received a message from a University Liggett School graduate, and now college sophomore at a Big 10 university, recounting an assignment in one of her classes in which students had to watch a “how-to” video on creating an annotated bibliography – a key piece of the academic research process. In the video, the professor exasperatedly expresses his dismay and disbelief that “they don’t teach you this in high school!” I responded with something to the effect, to use the modern parlance, of “ARP for the win!” Our alumna had first encountered this core research skill as a ninth-grader, in a variety of her courses on Cook Rd.

At University Liggett School, we believe that skills like these should be at the heart of the educational process. While content – the “stuff,” the materials, the facts and the figures of education – is a necessary medium for building those skills, our priority is to leverage that content to impart and grow in our charges the kinds of skills that will be useful across disciplines and subjects. We want our students to build the critical, transferrable aptitudes that we believe, and that our alumna’s anecdote suggests, will serve them in college and career beyond. Fifty years ago the purpose of an education may have been to give students a suitcase of content knowledge, but today we instead aim to give them a toolbox of skills. Simply put, we want to teach our students how to think, rather than what to think.

This vital process of skill-building was apparent throughout my day shadowing freshman Taveon C. We began our day in Mr. Homuth’s ARP 9 class where the class conducted a group reading of an advanced text, a scholarly book review of a new non-fiction work. Students stopped frequently to discuss unfamiliar vocabulary, to review key ideas, and to raise questions. They were practicing, together, a skill that will be critical for them to possess as individuals: the ability to grapple with, interrogate, and, fundamentally, deeply understand, a complex text (something we English majors know as “close reading”).

Our next two classes, World History with Mr. Pangrazzi and Core I English with Mr. Knote, focused on a similarly vital writing skill – the process of revision. History students conferenced with Mr. Pangrazzi on edits to their individual essays on “How to Rule an Empire” (written as putative advisors to an ancient throne). Those who finished began to work on annotated bibliographies for sources they would use on the midterm essays (and getting that six-year head start that our alumna appreciated!). In English, students met individually with Mr. Knote on revising body paragraphs of an analytical essay on The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie, part of a carefully scaffolded writing process in which they learn to build, piece by piece, effective, long-form academic writing. Mr. Knote reminded us of his belief that “there is no such thing as a good writer – only a good re-writer.”

In Honors Geometry with Mr. DeFauw, students conducted a variety of hands-on exercises with paper triangles. They drew a variety of converging lines from bases and vertices to create their own definitions of cicrcumcenters, incenters, centroids, and orthocenters. To cement this new understanding of these mathematically important properties of triangles, they then recreated the exercise digitally in a program called Geogebra. The skills on display in this exercise were agency and analysis, as students had to create their own meaning rather than having it simply provided to them for consumption, which is how many of us may remember math instruction.

We ended our day in biology, where students were reviewing, via fun electronic “Kahoot” quizzes, and drawing diagrams on personal white boards, as they prepared for a semester exam experience – their first in high school. This reminded me that the act of studying itself is a skill, and that students are best served when they are guided not just in what to study, but how to study – in this case, learning to “chunk” a large body of material in to manageable “bites” and mastering it over time, rather than “cramming” it all at once.

I finished my day as a freshman physically tired (boy they do a lot of walking!) but intellectually energized, as I contemplated the quality and depth of the intellectual activities they experienced and saw so many nascent, yet growing skills, which plant the seeds of rich, successful, and fulfilling academic lives to come.