(Above photo taken in 2019, pre-pandemic)
Vanessa opened our conversation with a disclaimer:
“I have the same attention span as my students,” she said. “We have to find a less distracting area.”
In the crowded R+D Center, this proved difficult. We maneuvered through a space humming with socially-distanced collaboration and printers printing to a (relatively) unoccupied corner, where Vanessa—Ms. Savas—told me all about teaching history at Beaver.
Ms. Savas has a twinkle in her eye that all good Middle School teachers have—it indicates some transcendent understanding of the 12-year-old mind. Is it patience? Exhaustion? (Maybe both?) At the very least, as Beaver’s 7th-grade history teacher, it’s a genuine, quiet, and calm tolerance of antics that every Middle School student benefits from.
In her class, students study American history through the experiences and voices of historically marginalized American people. They examine how power is/was used against indigenous peoples, enslaved persons, women, etc., and how their resistance has shaped history. Ms. Savas diverges from the misleading Eurocentric curriculum and teaches students a true and comprehensive American history.
“A lot of people think that American history begins when the Europeans got here,” she said. Ms. Savas debunks this all-to-popular belief in the students’ first project of the year: After learning about the Aztec, Inca, and Maya civilizations, students pick one and show how it was an advanced civilization.
Most of the projects students do in 7th-grade history are like this: Ms. Savas raises a topic in class and students run with it.
“Rather than teaching them every detail about a topic, we ask kids to think deeply—we ask kids to think deeply so they can think broadly.” — Vanessa Savas, 7th Grade History Teacher
For example, to learn about the trans-Atlantic slave trade, students create online gallery spaces detailing the specific forms of resistance of their choice. When studying indigenous cultures, they make podcasts investigating the stereotypical presentation of indigenous peoples in Pocahontas, the disproportionate effects of Covid on Native Americans, and the appropriation of Native culture in the fashion industry.
In other words, students learn history by exploring a facet that they relate to within a subject. Tapping into their intrinsic curiosity, Ms. Savas asks students what they want to know.
“Middle Schoolers love their volition—they take true ownership over learning,” she said. “We at Beaver trust that kids are intellectually curious, no matter how young they are. As a teacher, you just have to stoke that fire.”
It’s apparent Ms. Savas has the remarkable ability to translate exuberant Middle School energy into an inspired, curious zeal for history. I realize that it makes sense that she has, as she said, “the same attention span” as her students. She gets the 7th-grade mind and, more importantly, she knows how to feed it. Ms. Savas sees the creative, interested people her students are, and she helps them see it, too.
Ms. Savas doesn’t teach; she helps students decide to learn.
That’s what’s behind the twinkle in her eye.
— Lizzie Conklin is an intern at Beaver Country Day School and assistant to painter Joel Janowitz. She is currently interning in various departments at Beaver—including Visual Arts and Marketing. She hopes to one day be an artist.