Chu and her students show off the traditional Indian dresses they wore as part of the class. Photos by James Kinneen
By James Kinneen
Hometown Weekly Reporter
With the last week of school usually dedicated to looking out the window and longing for summer or complaining about the heat, Westwood High School has found a way to rejuvenate its students at the end of the school year: letting them choose what to learn about.
For the second year, Westwood High School students are participating in “J-Term,” an innovative educational idea that “provides an opportunity for students to dive deeply into an existing area of interest or explore a new interest during an immersive learning experience of their choosing. J-Term courses are challenging and experiential; they involve, not just inform.”
Students are graded on a pass/fail basis and academic credit is given, but it was clear everyone was enjoying themselves while doing it.
Christine Chu’s “Crazy Culturally Rich Asians” taught the kids about a new Asian country every day. For example, to learn about India, they brought in visitor Chandana Gopal.
“The social studies teacher reached out to me because the kids wanted to get a taste of what India is all about, what the culture is all about,” she explained. “So these are things that are typically very popular among the Western population, the clothes are fun, the music’s fun, the food’s fun and henna tattoos are something we always enjoy doing, so we decided to use those four elements and bring them into the school. We’ll be cooking a variety of Indian foods later - we’re making a lentil soup which is a dal and some kheer, which is like a rice pudding.”
“I’ve been teaching here for ten years and I made this brand-new J-Term course on Asian culture,” Chu told Hometown Weekly. “J-Term is a five-day summer elective where students choose what they’re interested in, what they’re passionate about, and we were lucky enough to have students that wanted to learn more about Asian culture, Asian music, Asian media, movies, experiences and food. So, we’re doing different days on Asia and we have visitors coming in to teach about their cultures, we’re watching movies and TV, we’re learning Tai-Chi, dressing up in saris, watching anime, doing henna tattoos, and much more. It’s really fun, it’s relaxed and it’s a great multicultural experience in this class.”
“Painting With Purpose” had done a paint-night-style day, where everyone had painted the same thing, but were moving on to paint something special for people they thought could use an uplifting image. While some students painted for people they knew, most created images for people in a memory facility that filled out worksheets explaining their favorite colors, favorite hobbies and favorite places to travel.
In “Dissecting Disney,” a classroom full of mouse-ear-wearing students were watching “The Little Mermaid,” which they would then break down from a gender and sexuality lens. They would also be going on a field trip to see the new live-action “Aladdin” to discuss how it handled cultural issues compared to the 1992 cartoon.
Students in “The World of Video Games” spent their break periods playing video games, but mixed learning about the history of gaming and the cultural and societal implications of the popular new medium, with Skype interviews with professionals in the gaming industry. On the low-tech end of the spectrum, “Catan and Beyond: An Exploration of Strategy Games” had kids playing games like “Ticket to Ride,” “Settlers of Catan,” and “Codenames” to better understand the role game theory plays in life, and to “learn how to recognize and evaluate alternative strategies in order to optimize your position in an ever-evolving environment.”
Other classes included music classes like “So You Think You Can Rock?” and “The Historical Roots of Hip Hop”; practical ones like ”Basic Carpentry and Wiring,” “Become a Certified Scuba Diver,” and “Adulting 101”; and college-style courses like “Activating your Inner Activist: Exploring Immigration and Refugees in America” and “Numbers Game: Analytics and Economics in Sports.”