Private School Guide

10 Private School Electives That (Almost) Make Us Wish We Were Back in School

Teenagers across the city are learning to program robots, start businesses, and design buildings. Not to mention listening to Hamilton for "summer reading."

By Morgan Kinney and Nicki Koetting September 21, 2018 Published in the October 2018 issue of Houstonia Magazine

Maybe it’s our aging brains, but we don’t remember many thrilling choices from our school days. Outside the prescribed algebra and CliffsNotes—ahem, English—classes, options included choir, home economics, maybe some computer courses. But bagpipe lessons? Not a honking chance. Hence our surprise as we perused course catalogs from this year’s crop of Houston’s top private schools, whose electives mimic curricula from Ivy League universities. Teenagers, apparently, are learning to program robots, start businesses, and design buildings. For one course, the “summer reading” consists of the Hamilton soundtrack! Not fair!

After compiling this list of 10 of the city’s coolest, most compelling private school electives, we’ve discovered a surprising possibility: Middle school, high school—the whole shebang—might be more bearable than ever before. 

Pipe Band | Saint Thomas Episcopal School

More than 100 students squeeze, screech, and drum under the tutelage of Lyric Todkill, surely one of only a handful of musicians to have earned a BFA in bagpiping. His class starts fourth graders on practice chanters—recorder-like instruments without the bag—before promoting them to play with the full outfit of kilt-bearing pipers and drummers, which takes gigs across Houston alongside the school's Highland dancers, and competes in Scotland’s World Pipe Band Championships. It all requires a lot of commitment and practice, but don’t worry: “We have a supply of earplugs available for our students and our parents,” says Todkill. 

Visions of the Apocalypse: From Dante to Dylan to Dr. Dre | The Kinkaid School

Teacher Christa Forster assures us that her class is not, as the title might suggest, a depressing lesson on the end of the world. Instead, she favors a wider definition of “apocalypse,” one focused on the word’s Greek roots. “There’s this idea of apocalypse not as the end of the world, but as the unhiding of the world that poets have always done,” she says. “We ask, ‘What are these poets revealing that we need to know in order to live meaningful lives?’” Students dive into classics like The Odyssey, but things quickly turn modern: Forster’s unorthodox summer reading assignments include giving the Hamilton soundtrack a listen, and during the school year everyone chooses a rap artist whose music they explore in depth. Skeptical that Homer belongs beside hip-hop? Get with the times, Forster says, and check out Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN., which won the 2018 Pulitzer Prize.

Concert Band | The Village School

Sure, pretty much every place has a band, but this one pumps out certifiable musicians molded under the Juilliard Creative Collaboration, a holistic curriculum modeled after the vaunted New York conservatory. “You are getting an academic course that will teach you history, contextual understanding, and music theory, as well as how to perform,” says Michael Barber, the school’s director of fine arts. It all serves as a foundation for students who might be interested in the school’s brutally challenging International Baccalaureate music program. And after that? Barber says many students go on to become professional musicians, or, at the very least, lifelong connoisseurs.

Leading with Business | Incarnate Word Academy

Whether it’s a Starbucks clone or a custom sticker empire, the not-so-simple objective for students taking this course is to plan, hire, and execute a profitable business. Modeled after a first-year entrepreneurship class at UPenn’s Wharton School of Business, the course is part of the all-girls school’s leadership program, which aims to teach students real-deal life and business skills to cultivate a new generation of Sheryl Sandbergs and Oprah Winfreys. “Once these girls graduate, they treat their college experience differently,” says ex-PricewaterhouseCoopers exec Charles Kafoglis, who teaches the class. “They’re not trying to find themselves during freshman year. They’re jumping in.”

Robotics and Engineering DesignNorthland Christian

Students in grades 6 through 12 learn the basics of building and programming robots in this class. Middle-schoolers develop robots using LEGO Mindstorms software; high-schoolers build their own ’bots from metal and program their creations themselves. Both groups compete in FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) events, and since this year’s theme is space, younger students also will research how humans can survive on long space flights, while older ones will build a Mars Rover–like robot. “It’s a challenge and a competition,” says middle school teacher Gretchen Wietstruck. “That keeps them interested every year.” 

The Writings of C.S. LewisEpiscopal High School

The author of the Chronicles of Narnia series was also a Christian theologian, and students who take this popular elective, held every other year for juniors and seniors, read and discuss Lewis’s religious works, both fiction and nonfiction, says the Rev. Beth Holden, EHS chaplain and religion department chairwoman. Students take turns leading the class, which focuses on Lewis’s The Great Divorce, The Screwtape Letters, The Four Loves, and Mere Christianity. “C.S. Lewis is such a draw,” Holden says, “not only from the popularity of the Narnia books and movies, but because his works are so accessible. He really wrote in a way that made Christianity understandable and accessible to people, whether they’re Christians or non-Christians.” 

Animation | Strake Jesuit

This year marks the debut of Animation as a standalone class at Strake. In years past, students got a taste of the subject over a three-week period as part of art teacher Marilyn Othon’s Art and Animation class, but they wanted more. “Students wanted to make longer animations and cover other types of animation that we weren’t able to get to in such a short period of time,” says Othon. Now they’ll get to learn about the history of the form before diving into creating flip books and stop-motion with people, clay, and other objects. Along the way, they’ll learn the virtues of patience and paying attention to detail—it’s a slow process, after all, even with help from computers. 

Architecture | St. John’s School

Local artist Dan Havel—well-known for his amazing deconstructed-house installations, created with partner Dean Ruck, including Inversion on Montrose (2005) and Open House, currently on view in Sam Houston Park—previously taught a workshop for “young architects” at the Glassell Junior School, on using recycled materials to create a scale model of a city. He’s since updated it for students at St. John’s, turning it into a crash course on everything architecture. Along with a large dose of theory and history, students learn to draw plans and build models, and present their ideas at the end of their projects, “much like working architects do with their clients,” Havel says. “I’ve had many alums of the class go on to successful careers in architecture and design. It’s very gratifying.”

Forensic Science | St. Agnes Academy

It was four years ago that chemistry teacher Robin Licato decided she wanted to teach a course that would consist of entirely hands-on, lab-based learning, with no tests. She wanted it to be fun, while also keeping students engaged and interested in science. The class she came up with, Forensic Science, was an instant hit. “The students are all about it; they’re all about the crime shows,” Licato says. “And through forensic science you can do blood work, DNA analysis, learn physics through ballistics, toxicology, drug analysis—you can pretty much hit all disciplines.” For each lesson, students learn a lab skill, then try to solve a real-life crime. After processing the evidence, they write up reports on whodunit—the only graded part of the class. “By the end of the semester, they’re much more aware, much more critical,” Licato says. “It started as a way to build up their confidence, and it has really surpassed that.”

Peacemaking | Duchesne Academy of The Sacred Heart

World peace may be a lot to ask for, but it’s the aspiration of teacher Anne Morris’s theology elective. The seniors-only class stitches together materials from Buddhism, the Bible, pop psychology, social justice, and other domains as building blocks to defuse situations as mundane as your little sister borrowing your clothes and as life-or-death as border disputes. “For example, this year I’ll use the Israel-Palestine conflict,” Morris says. “How do we take it from ‘You stole my shirt’ to ‘You stole my land’?” Check back for solutions—or at least nonviolent communication strategies—at the end of the semester. 

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