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The Relevance of Synoikismos To 8th Graders

I’ve been preoccupied with two questions as a principal, teacher, citizen, and parent for some time now, even before the 2016 election. What is the impact of the political climate on adolescents and what should we do to help our students make sense of and improve it? With its new “Learn our Powers” Mission Statement, Wheeler is more clearly positioned than ever to help students to answer these questions. This passage, in particular, serves as a guide:

While all our paths of discovery are unique, each of us will develop the empathy, knowledge, and skills needed to lead a life of joy, meaning, and impact as ethical, engaged, and creative citizens of our school, community, and world.

How do we help students become ethical, engaged, and creative citizens of our school, community, and world?
The Greeks, specifically Aristotle, contemplated this question. When fellow Wheeler History teacher Joe Baer and I taught Classical Greek history to 8th graders, we introduced the Greek concept of synoikismos, “a drawing together of different families and tribes, of competing economic interests, of natives with foreigners.” (Richard Sennett, 1998 Raoul Wallenberg Lectures, p.19) As history teachers, we wanted to shed light on a distant civilization while demonstrating the relevance of ancient thought to our lives today. We had little idea in 2008 just how relevant and necessary synoikismos would be in 2018 in the education of our students, and all members of our society.

Just as Aristotle believed the polis, or city-state, to be the perfect place to achieve synoikismos, Joe and I saw Providence as the perfect classroom for our citizen-students to be a part of the coming together of people of all backgrounds. We crafted units culminating in the Fox Point/Agora project where our students had to reimagine a public park in a nearby neighborhood. They interviewed everyone from long-time Fox Point residents to RISD students renting for a year. As they redesigned the park to engender synoikismos in the community, they themselves were experiencing its magnetic effect by meaningfully connecting with a wide range of people and hearing their stories. Our classroom became permeable and the learning multidimensional, interdisciplinary, and vivid. In the process, they developed many of the skills of citizenship like involvement in civic life, making sense of complex issues for the betterment of the many, and understanding and appreciating that people come with different perspectives on many issues. Maybe the simplest lesson on citizenship was giving the students a sense of place and neighborhood, a rarity for adolescents these days. The experience also enlivened their study of Classical Greek history and provided real-life tests of their time management, research, technological, collaborative and communication skills. In short, it was purposeful, challenging learning.

Set to begin in September 2019, the Cityside Program will build on the successes of the Fox Point/Agora unit and projects like it by broadening and deepening these learning experiences. Cityside students will spend approximately four hours a week in Providence familiarizing themselves with the physical and human geography of neighborhoods and conducting interdisciplinary research on a wide range of topics from the importance of public art to the history and patterns of immigration in a particular neighborhood. Many Wheeler faculty, alumni and other adults working for a variety of studios and agencies will support the students in their learning. Additionally, Cityside represents an important evolution of the School’s Unity and Diversity program and a revitalization of several academic initiatives. Most importantly, 8th graders will achieve one of the School’s aforementioned aspirations: to help students become ethical, engaged, and creative citizens of our school, community, and world. 

Please reach out to me or Joe Baer, Cityside Director, if you'd like to learn more.

216 Hope Street
Providence, Rhode Island 02906-2246
Phone: (401) 421-8100
FAX: (401) 751-7674

Founded 1889

The Wheeler School is an independent coeducational college preparatory day school for Nursery, Pre-K, K-Grade 12 serving Providence, RI, Greater Providence and Greater Boston. The Hamilton School welcomes Grades 1-8 with language-based learning differences.