Cascade Students Dive In

"Today we are gonna go a'pirating, and you are all sea dogs," second-year Amy Woodruff said to her classroom of 30 high school students. The kids took turns applying temporary tattoos of skull and crossbones while she explained their plan to raid another classroom.

The "sea dogs" were enrolled in Woodruff and second-year Brooke Slawinski's class on "Pirate Culture and Democracy" for Cascade, a seven-week program in which University of Chicago students teach ninth through twelfth graders.

Cascade is run by an RSO called Splash!, based on an MIT program of the same name. The one-day Splash! program was so successful that the organizers decided to create the seven-week Cascade program. The majority of Cascade's roughly 60 students are enrolled in public schools in Kenwood, Hyde Park and Woodlawn. Cascade's eclectic courses have ranged from an introduction to neuroscience to a class on Batman called "The Dark Knight Abides."

 That 'wow' experience in the classroom

Slawinski and Woodruff say their class was inspired by Asst. Prof. Shannon Lee Dawdy's course on pirates last spring. Their offshoot class explores how pirates across history have organized their crews and communicated with each other.

Though the high schoolers were batting each other playfully with foam swords, the scene wasn't too foreign from a University of Chicago seminar class.  "We're not going to just tell you where the treasure's at," Woodruff and Slawinski insisted, sounding like professors who probe their students with questions rather than simply giving them answers. "You're going to have to find it yourselves."

After a pop quiz on the Golden Age of piracy, Slawinski led her students out of the classroom and toward the lecture hall that harbored fourth-year Amy Estersohn's journalism class. "Ahoy! Avast!" they chanted.

The pirates burst through the doors, cheering. Estersohn, ready to make the outburst into a learning experience, calmed them down.  "We ask that in return for disrupting the journalism class, we get to interview you about your pirate practices."

The journalism class immediately began to lob questions at the pirate crew—Why did you become a pirate? Why are you wearing an eyepatch? The classroom material regularly becomes a backdrop for these kinds of hands-on experiences, according to Estersohn, and that's what keeps the students engaged.

She said Cascade owes its success to passionate teachers and volunteers who prefer to teach with projects rather than lectures. "We've all had that 'wow' experience in the classroom, we've all had that teacher who inspired us. We love learning, and want to share that with others," Estersohn said.

An introduction to college life

The proof of Cascade's success is its ability to bring enrolled students back for classes week after week, even though no one is taking attendance or handing out grades. "We get emails from parents thanking us, because they see the long-term investment we've made here," Estersohn said. Parents know that Cascade is more than an after-school activity—it's an introduction to college life.

"A lot of these students might not be familiar with [the University of Chicago], but this is a terrific opportunity for them to feel less intimidated by the idea of college," Estersohn explained. "They walk through our hallways, they have pizza with us, and they get to know who we are."

The University has supported Cascade in many ways, according to Estersohn. In addition to providing equipment and meals for Cascade students, the University has opened up classrooms for Cascade. "We've used Ryerson for an astronomy class, we've used the [Biological Sciences Learning Center]. It's so terrific that the University's resources are open to students," she said.

Thanks to this support, Estersohn added, Splash! and Cascade can provide programming to high school students at no cost. "Whenever I talk to guidance counselors, their jaws drop. They ask, 'Where's the application, what's the cost?' I tell them there is no application, no cost, and they almost can't believe the University of Chicago and its students do this."