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Undergrads "Taking a Stand" on Appian Way

Katherine MersethIf you see a regular group of Harvard College students on Appian Way this fall, don’t be surprised. These students are frequenting the Ed School campus to get a jump on their education about education. HGSE Senior Lecturer Katherine Merseth, in collaboration with Harvard Faculty of Arts and Sciences, will teach one of the first courses about education reform to ever be taught at the undergraduate general education level, Taking a Stand: Dilemmas of Equity and Excellence in American K–12 Education.

“We see this as an incredible opportunity to engage undergraduates in some of most critical issues of our times,” Merseth says. “Also, we feel an obligation to help college undergraduates understand issues of schooling in America. We are pretty excited about it.”

The course, which came about at the request of Dean Kathleen McCartney and Harvard University President Drew Faust, grapples with the problems and challenges that have defined American education. Additionally, it explores issues and disagreements on educational excellence, achievement, equality in American society.

“Many Harvard College students are interested in education, as evidenced by the recently formed Harvard College Education Society as well as the increasing numbers of undergraduates who are applying for positions with Teach For America,” says McCartney. “A general education course in education will inspire talented Harvard College alumni to choose a career in education. I recruited Kay to teach this course because she is one of HGSE’s very best instructors. The course she designed is extraordinary.”

The course takes a sociological and historical look at current school reform. “It is meant to help understand the United States society, so we look at work in sociology, economics, and history,” Merseth says. The course, which will meet on Appian Way twice a week, is open to 55 students. At the time of class shopping this week, Merseth reported nearly 100 students expressed an interest in the course.

General education classes often follow a lecture format whereas Taking a Stand is focused on actions and discussions.  As a case-based course, students will engage in discussion of actual education dilemmas, written and documented in order to bring the reality of schooling into the classroom.  “Cases are a fantastic way to teach,” Merseth says, “because students get their hands dirty figuring out what possible actions make the most sense in the given context. Students learn to devise strategies and to work together for the development of new and fresh ideas.”

This class is a new experience for Merseth considering it is her first time teaching directly at the undergraduate level. She plans to turn up the notch a bit with technology and increase interactiveness — Merseth is asking students to produce a two- to three-minute movie in which they ‘take a stand’ about the purpose of schooling. She will also have students create a timeline of their own learning journey and a review of the factors that may have influenced their admission to Harvard.

“I’m tremendously enthused and energized by this opportunity,” Merseth says. “It’s fascinating to meet undergraduates and see how they look at K–12 education. I hope as a result of the course that many will become passionate about education and perhaps become teachers, school administrators, or graduate students at HGSE.”

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