The High School Curriculum Every Urban Planner Wishes They'd Had

A Bronx private school uses the city to unite and apply the variety of subjects taught in class.

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Fieldston School

For a high school curriculum, dividing up subjects into separate specialized classes is pure pragmatism. For understanding real life, it's a little disjointed.

"There is an artificiality to a disciplinary approach to the world," says Andy Meyers, a history teacher at the Ethical Culture Fieldston School, a private school in the Bronx. "We don’t walk through the world and look at a building or look at a park and say, OK, so the next 45 minutes I'm going to look at this as an English student, and then for the next 45 minutes after that I'll look at it as a science student, and then maybe tomorrow I’ll look at it as a historian. We keep all those things at play."

In an attempt to unify that variety of high school subjects, Meyers has put together a semester-long multidisciplinary course that requires students to apply the spectrum of their education in a cohesive way. To do it, he picked maybe the most multidisciplinary of focal points: the city.

City Semester is an immersive, city-focused course that combines classwork and field studies for juniors at Fieldston. It's like other semester away programs run by the school, but instead of sending kids out to the Rocky Mountains or the Maine coast, students in the City Semester program turn their attention to their own neighborhood and city. Meyers has compiled a broad range of teachers from the school to participate, including teachers focusing on history, ethics, language, theater, literature, film, photography and music.

The program is divided into four main sections: sustainability, immigration and difference, power and conflict, and neighborhood and community renewal. This last section is centered around the Bronx River, located a couple miles from the school.

"We wanted to talk about neighborhood formation, and chronologically to talk about the recovery of the Bronx," Meyers says. "We use the Bronx River as a means of discussing both human and non-human communities."

One of the main parts of this section of the program consists of a two-day canoe trip down the river. The students collect scientific data about the water and the ecology and make presentations about both the history of the neighborhoods and the development of the river habitats. Meyers says this approach pulls in what the students are learning and relates it to things they see in their day-to-day experiences and the neighborhoods around them.

"Adolescents are at a place in their lives where understanding the relevance of what they're learning can make an enormous difference in terms of their engagement," Meyers says.

The program looks broadly at the city as a subject, even looking into the policies and politics that are driving change in New York. Meyers took the class to meet with officials from the city's Department of Transportation to hear about the planning and implementation of bike lanes throughout the city. Then they rented bikes and rode the lanes. Meyers says this hands-on approach helps students to see the various ways what they're learning can be applied in real-life situations.

And if delving into city politics isn't enough to add a little more stress to high schoolers' lives, one of the sections of the course had students role-playing and problem-solving their way through some not-too-far-off disaster scenarios brought on as a result of climate change. Rising sea levels create a flood in lower Manhattan that causes a blackout, in this scenario. During the power outage, a rumored hostage situation at the United Nations causes the whole subway system to shut down. Students had to imagine they were stuck in their school for 3 days – and to cope with all the logistical and psychological impacts such a situation would cause. They even engaged in community design charrettes to come up with feasible retrofit ideas that can help communities handle the potential threats they'll face as the climate continues to change.

This section of the course was taught earlier this year by Alec Appelbaum, a journalist who's covered urban planning for years. He says that high schoolers are maybe the ideal audience for this sort of lesson.

"They're going to be living with the consequences of the misdirected debate that's gone on about climate change," says Appelbaum. "The carbon overload in the atmosphere is something that young people didn’t particularly cause and will have to survive."

Both Appelbaum and Meyers say the students were very engaged in the program. It's a self-selected group that applied to be in the program, but Meyers says the interest level shows that this multidisciplinary approach is effective. And from a teaching perspective, using the city as the subject matter opens a lot of avenues for tackling the wide variety of disciplines in a way that places them into the real world. "In many ways, I'm surprised that we haven’t done work like this sooner," he says.

About the Author

  • Nate Berg is a freelance reporter and a former staff writer for CityLab. He lives in Los Angeles.