Washtenaw County's 5 most innovative high school classes

High school courses aren't just reading, writing and arithmetic anymore. High schoolers in Washtenaw County have the opportunity to study a plethora of unusual subjects and to learn more traditional material in unconventional new ways. After poring over local high school course catalogs Concentrate picked five of the most innovative high school course offerings in the county. Take a look:

Homebuilding (Ann Arbor Public Schools)
Forget about reports and class presentations; the final and only project for the juniors and seniors in Ann Arbor Public Schools' (AAPS) Homebuilding class is the construction of an entire house. Students must apply and undergo an interview process to take the class, which accepts only 30 students per year. This year's class is currently working on a four-bedroom colonial house in the Sumerset neighborhood in northwest Ann Arbor, where previous Homebuilding classes have built several other homes. The program is a partnership between AAPS and the nonprofit Ann Arbor Student Building Industry Program, which purchases land for the program and sells the finished homes.

John Birko, who has taught the class for 10 years, says the course is valuable because it presents a very real-world application for a variety of subjects that students otherwise have a mostly abstract understanding of, like mathematics. "I had a student tell me one time: 'This isn't even real math. This is just shit we use to get work done,'" Birko says.  "That's an educational problem. We're not doing a good enough job explaining why this is important."

Popular Literature (Dexter High School)
Everyone reads The Catcher In the Rye and The Great Gatsby in high school, but Dexter High School's Popular Literature course aims to inspire new readers with more contemporary material. Teacher Stephanie Nolan developed the class about 10 years ago and pitched it to school administrators when she started working at Dexter. Each year she takes students' requests for new books to feature in the class, which has tackled popular texts including the Hunger Games novels and the works of The Fault In Our Stars author John Green. 

Although the material may be somewhat unusual, Nolan's approach is the same as it would be in any conventional literature class, leading students through an examination of the books' themes, characters and plots. The literary merit of young adult fiction inspires occasional debate, but Nolan says it's "great" as long as her students (some of whom have admitted to her that they've never finished an entire book before in high school) are at least reading something. "For a good chunk of the kids it's just all about finding what interests them...and then they stick with it after that," she says.

BioArt (Ypsilanti New Tech High School)
Subjects at Ypsilanti's New Tech High School are pretty standard: Composition, Chemistry, Art, et cetera. But there's a unique twist in the way the school combines subjects into "integrated" classes with portmanteau names like PhysiComp and ChemStat. The approach, developed in the late ‘90s by Napa, Calif.'s New Tech Network, promotes collaboration and encourages students to note complementary elements of seemingly disparate disciplines.

New Tech's BioArt class provides a particularly striking example of the school's approach. "People really struggle," says principal Scott Snyder. "‘How do you put biology and art together? That doesn't really make any sense.'" Kathy Fisk, who teaches the art portion of ninth-grade BioArt at New Tech, says the disciplines actually complement each other very well. Her students are currently in the midst of a genetics unit. Students will correspond with individuals who have genetic disorders through the New York-based nonprofit Positive Exposure, and then create their own artistic representation of what beauty is. Fisk says that when she's taught that activity in past years, the students' art displayed an increased sense of "empathy and awareness." 

"They're not just making art for a pretty picture," she says. "They're making art to communicate something specific. They're making art to make a connection to biology and life, because that's what biology is. It just makes for a deeper learning experience."

Zines (Saline High School)
Saline High School teacher Jamie Vollrath describes his Zines class as "a mini-media empire." Working in teams of three, Vollrath's students develop their own topics for online publications, or "zines," and pitch them to the class. Students edit their own zines, but also must compete to work for their classmates' publications as freelance writers. "I'm sort of a guide, but…if there's a bad idea from the get-go the students will tell each other," Vollrath says. "The market sort of runs itself."

The result is a truly diverse assortment of zines, ranging from the vintage-focused "Old But Gold" to the highly popular zombie zine "SurvivALL." Vollrath originally developed the course as a smaller-scale activity while teaching English at Tahoma High School in Washington State, and pitched it as a course unto itself when he started teaching in Saline in 2013. His original inspiration was a former fellow Tahoma High teacher who made traditional paper zines with her students in the '90s. Vollrath says he was excited by the concept's potential for getting students excited about writing. "The purpose is to give them an authentic writing experience, to push the students who need a little more push, and to further inspire those who want to try writing in different ways," he says.

Songs as Poetry (Chelsea High School)
Avenged Sevenfold, Keith Urban and Florence and the Machine are all typical ways for high schoolers to occupy themselves outside the classroom. But in Rachael Wismont's Songs as Poetry class at Chelsea High School, those artists and many others are all part of the curriculum. Wismont starts the class off with an overview of the history of music over the last century and then opens the floor for her students to bring in their favorite music for the class to study. "The relationship between music and poetry is so close," Wismont says. "Because music is so powerful and strong for students, it's a really nice way in for students to be able to look for poetic devices in the music they already listen to and like."

And that knowledge sticks with them, as exemplified by a story Wismont tells of running into a former student who has now graduated high school. "She was like: 'Oh my gosh, Ms. Wismont, I just have to tell you that I don't listen to music the same way anymore,'" Wismont recounts. "'Now whenever I listen to music I'm noticing, there's some kinesthetic imagery, or there's some expressed identity metaphors.' That was a really nice compliment to hear, because that's part of the goal: to activate a part of the brain that maybe wasn't active before."

Patrick Dunn is an Ann Arbor-based freelance writer and a senior writer at Concentrate andMetromode.

All photos by Doug Coombe .

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