Covering some of the different electives offered at American High School and analyzing the important skills learnt from each class
Counselors giving their annual A-G requirement presentations. Posters slowly being hung up on the walls. The yearly AP class discussion happening among students. It’s officially time for American High students to choose their classes for the next school year. It’s an exciting but also anxious time for many students as there are different factors like college, graduation, and peer pressure that play a role in the decision making process for choosing classes. Students will fill up their course load with AP classes and other core classes, but often wonder what to do with that one empty spot on their transcript. Luckily, there is a plethora of interesting and creative electives that students can take to add on to their coursework.
Folklore and Mythology is one of these electives offered at American, and the initiative is led by English teacher Mr. Howard.
He explains that with the class, students can sharpen their writing skills and also think inquisitively about the stories and media around them. “While there is some writing, what I try to focus on is what are some things that students might think they know about these common stories that they don’t actually know. So we’ll read the real Cinderella story, and we’ll see how it changes over time so we can see how different cultures have changed it.”
Although the class is classified as an English elective, Howard assures that, “It’s not a second English class,” saying, “I try to be mindful, so the readings are generally short. We do a lot of the readings in class, and we also look at a lot of movies. So there’s a variety of ways to consume the stories. I try to limit outside writing because while there’s value in reading fairy tales and studying them, it’s also a fairy tale, so it should be fun. Not like you’re writing a 10 page essay on dissecting the history of a fairy tale. It should be more casual and leisurely.”
There is a reason why Howard has to assure that the elective isn’t solely academic. Many students view electives as a rest from their harder, more academically focused classes. Amratha Rao, a junior at American, says that she views electives as a nice break. “I know, personally, I wouldn’t take it too seriously. It would be something I would take for enjoyment.”
Elective teachers acknowledge this perspective that many students have, and so they try to adjust their class curriculum accordingly— to be more fun and to be a little unconventional as well.
Mr. Savoie, who currently advises the yearbook and school newspaper at American, adopts this sort of attitude, saying, “I take a very laissez faire approach to these classes. I think there aren’t a lot of opportunities that I see in American High School’s curriculum for students to take leadership positions and guide their own learning. That’s the reason why I take more of a support role, and students like that. They tend to have ideas, they had experiences they liked, and they had experiences they didn’t like, and they want to affect change. A classroom where they can do that is a space where you’re creating your own goals and going after them in your own way.”
“Every month, [in journalism], we try to figure out what’s going on in the school community and in the greater school community. And then we go out and hit the streets. We talk to people and try to figure out what the right people know, and get that information out to students,” Savoie explains.
This approach to classes allows students to think in a more challenging way about the world and environment around them. It’s an important skill that many of the elective classes at American prioritize.
Ethnic studies, a course currently taught by Ms. Mishal, is a curriculum focused on highlighting the stories and histories of different ethnic groups that might not be front and center in regular history curricula.
Mishal explains that in ethnic studies, “We have a lot of discussions and while some of the topics can be quite polemic, I challenge and encourage all students to speak their mind even if their opinion might be going against the grain.”
Mishal sees that this type of thinking is beneficial to students, especially high school students of this age. “I feel that my students are becoming more confident in having these discussions as well as basing their discussions on research instead of like ‘Oh, I heard or I saw this somewhere on Instagram.’ People are talking and sharing and connecting [their research] to the real life impacts today.”
Howard also shares the idea of uncovering the truth in Folklore and Mythology. “One thing that’s really interesting to me is looking at, for example, Native American folklore and seeing how European colonizers have changed it, have made it more in line with Christianity to represent European values, and have eliminated the values of non-European indigenous people. So we do a lot of exploration into how these stories change and get manipulated, but we also look at the structure of stories.”
The idea of challenging the orthodox and thinking outside of the box in terms of stories and literature that both teachers point out is especially important in an environment that is exceedingly STEM focused, like the Bay Area. The issue is that students in this atmosphere can often feel limited in their choice to pick more creative electives.
Rao explains that the reason why there is a stigma around choosing more creative electives is because of peer pressure. “We live in the Bay Area, so competition can be expected. I’ve noticed a lot of people in our school, especially the kids in my math or science curriculum courses, are following mainly the path of engineering or computer science. So there’s always this pressure of being the best and getting the best opportunities. That means taking more advanced classes and, well, less electives.”
But Howard offers a different perspective, explaining, “I think in recent years there’s been a huge shift to valuing and prioritizing mental health. And part of that is we just need to accept that you cannot prioritize mental health if you’re taking six AP classes, running three clubs, and also doing athletics or volunteering. You need time to just explore something that’s fun. So with mythology and folklore, there’s an intersection between what’s fun and the academic side whether it’s reading the actual myths or [watching] modern reinterpretations like Marvel.”
Mishal shares a similar sentiment on the idea of combining scholastic and creative activities. “[Ethnic studies] is a chance for our students to see themselves in the course. They will learn how to speak, they will learn how to discuss, they will research, they will be doing presentations and learning how to speak in front of an audience. They also will have the chance to be creative and do artistic projects. So I feel like this class kind of is a jack of all trades. You get to practice many important skills and be creative as well.”
Savoie emphasizes, “[In] a school culture where accomplishments and achievements tend to take precedence, it’s really important for students to simply just experiment and to figure things out themselves. And [elective] classes offer that.”