The Conversation: Modeling Cross-Disciplinary Curiosity During a Study Abroad Trip

Fall 2019

By Rebecca Scherr

2Convo_06-19_revised-(3).jpgWhen Chris Sanchez, a math and physics teacher at St. Andrew’s School (DE), signed up for the first study abroad trip the classics department had sponsored since he’d been at the school, he expected to experience the trip as a student of the ancient world. With his colleague Philip Walsh, a classics teacher, Sanchez and eight students explored ancient cities such as Pompeii and Herculaneum. As they walked past the plaster casts of bodies appearing to protect each other, they discussed Roman life, frozen in time when Mount Vesuvius erupted and buried the cities in 79 AD. The discussion of the eruption and its impact led Sanchez to think about scientific questions of momentum, energy, and projectile motion.
 
The next day, the group hiked the ancient volcano, the city of Naples becoming smaller and smaller as they made their ascent. At the summit, Sanchez shared with Walsh a few interesting facts that he’d looked up the night before: Rocks from the volcano had erupted at a height of about 20 miles into the stratosphere, producing a fall of ashes that accumulated to depths of about 10 feet at Pompeii. He asked the students to use Newtonian physics to repaint the picture of what they saw the day before. The conversation soon turned to a reading in Latin and English inspired by the eruption. At that moment, time stood still for the teachers. In this edited conversation, they reflect on their February trip, why cross-disciplinary curiosity is so important for today’s learners, and how educators can best foster this learning.
 
Walsh: I think study abroad is crucial to the mission of the classics department at St. Andrew’s. We only do this trip once every few years, but it really inspires great conversations and learning when students get a chance to get out of the school headspace and parachute to a completely different part of the world.
 
Sanchez: The classroom tends to lack that kinesthetic feel, and you can try to create it virtually. But to observe these things for yourself, to feel these things, to experience these things, it just creates this genuine curiosity and excitement, this authentic sense of wonder and discovery. That was the magic for me. In that moment we weren’t thinking about a classics or physics classroom, that there needed to be this hard line dividing them, but rather knowing they could co-exist beautifully in one another.
 
Walsh: We read this ancient letter that describes the moment people were forced to decide whether to stay inside of their buildings or to get to the shoreline to sail away. That made the physics come alive—they were carrying pillows on top of their heads, with ash, fire, and rock just falling down.
 
Sanchez: Think about what kind of impact it would require for that shoreline to be moved. In an instant, the shoreline is moved hundreds of meters back. And I think it’s an incredible physical phenomenon that has had significant cultural and historical implications.
 
Walsh: I’m glad you researched the physics of the eruption, because I think that enriched the experience of walking up the mountain, of seeing and smelling and listening. I think the ninth graders who listened to our conversation picked up on our curiosity about the science I left behind in college. It was a great chance to connect. There should be no firewalls between what happens in a physics classroom, what happens in a language classroom, and what happens in a literature classroom. They work in concert together.

We spent a few days in Naples, and then we had a two- to three-hour bus ride up to Rome. You were just beginning to think about your senior tutorial, thinking out loud about what this unique experience would be.
 
Sanchez: That’s right. In the spring, the school offers tutorials in which teachers can lead an eight-week writing intensive course. The teacher has an opportunity to explore whatever topic they’re curious about, and a requirement is that students write papers every week. I chose to teach Theory & Reality: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Science, a cross-disciplinary class that uses science and philosophy to analyze the conceptual foundations of different scientific models, paradigms, and frameworks. It was a great way to convey to the students that science and humanities are deeply interconnected.
 
On that bus ride, you saw me diving into content that I hadn’t looked at in two or three years, realizing the density of it. I was simultaneously excited and a little bit nervous because it’s not something that I’ve thought about in a few years.
 
Walsh: As a nonscientist and someone who was just listening to your initial thinking, I was responding to the idea of leaning into not knowing, of modeling that for your students. You have great passion and content experience, but I appreciate how you were also opening yourself up and making yourself vulnerable and saying we’re going to make mistakes, we’re going to stumble through these things. You were suggesting that there may not be great answers to the questions we might pose. But it’s the questions and the conversations that emerge from those really good questions—that’s the process, right? That’s where learning happens.
 
Sanchez: Having finished the tutorial now, leaning into discomfort is probably the best way to describe what teaching this class was like. I realized it’s just like you said; it’s OK to not have all the answers. Sometimes posing the questions and letting that ruminate in your mind is an interesting activity and a great intellectual exercise in and of itself.
 
Walsh: We’re a culture that’s obsessed with answers, but it’s the questions that matter. And this is why working at an independent school is so meaningful: We get to pose and really think about hard, complicated, great questions.
 
Sanchez: Curiosity for the sake of curiosity.
 
Walsh: Yes, and that was one of the core principles of our trip. We wanted to bring all different aspects of the school into conversation with one another while we were in-country, whether that was literature, history, art or archaeology, philosophy, religion, the history of science, the philosophy of science.
 
Sanchez: We wanted to model that genuine curiosity as much as we could, too. I recognized that I was going to be a student of classics and learn and ask questions and be aware of all of the information coming my way.
 
I think we do that well as a faculty. We visit other classes, and we are genuinely interested in what’s happening in other departments. We have a strong culture of being inquisitive and exploring things beyond ourselves. Students become genuinely curious by the ubiquitous modeling of cross-disciplinary curiosity.
 
Walsh: So what were the outcomes of our trip? What did you take away beyond a newfound appreciation for Roman history, early modern art, and romantic poetry?
 
Sanchez: When I got back, I immediately asked you all these questions about the ancient world. I knew I wasn’t going to come back and become a classicist as much as I got invested.
 
Walsh: Sure, because it was a humanistic experience.
 
Sanchez: Right, I knew that I wasn’t going to get a master’s degree in this, but I was interested in diving deeper into understanding ancient Rome. I asked for your Netflix and podcast recommendations, and I’ve been learning more about ancient Rome and mythology. Before this trip, I thought these stories didn’t really mean anything. Now it’s like, what can we learn from them? The history, the culture, and our bond has formed a special place in my heart and has developed within me this kind of passion for storytelling. And how about you: What did you take away from this experience?
 
Walsh: My outcomes are more practical in that you and I got to know each other really well. You know when you spend 12 days, in-country with eight students …
 
Sanchez: Fourteen hours a day …
 
Walsh: As much as we were inspired by one another, I think we’re equally inspired by the students’ attention, inquisitiveness, and curiosity. But I think you and I have just become great friends. I wish there were more opportunities in a school year in which faculty, whether it’s you and me or our colleagues in other departments, can really bond in ways that get us outside of school. And that’s really hard because it requires time, energy, and investment.
 
But through this experience, you helped me appreciate the work that you do, living in a freshman dorm. Through your stories and observations, I feel like I have a much more complete and deeper understanding of the life of a ninth grade boy. I’m teaching all day, but I don’t live upstairs in the dorm. What you’ve told me has already helped me be a better teacher, because I have more insight into what those boys are doing, what they’re thinking, and the dynamics among them.
 
Sanchez: I think we all came back a much closer group of people than when we left. When I see them in the halls, we have these moments when we just have that quick highlight of, oh, do you remember that time?
 
Walsh: I think you said it once that the core of the trip was the human relationships. And I think that’s part of the energy of this school and something both of us are very attuned to. Education is about delivering content, but also creating buy-in through enriched human relationships.

Do You Have a Conversation to Share?

Have you had a great conversation with a colleague recently that broke down silos or got you thinking about your work in a new way? Have you chatted with someone on (or off) campus that led to an unexpected collaboration? Tell us about it. Do you know of—or are you a part of—a great student–teacher duo? We want to hear about it. Send a brief description to ismag@nais.org, and we’ll follow up.
 
Author
Rebecca Scherr

Rebecca Scherr is senior editor/writer at NAIS.