It was a rainy Tuesday in Manhattan as six Darien High School kids marched down Columbus Avenue searching for Councilwoman Gayle Brewer's office. They were on an assignment to interview her for Jean Shortliffe's "Humanities" class, where they learn to analyze urban areas and navigate cities.
"The interviews were fascinating, as has been this whole course," said sophomore Jared Garner. "I've learned so much about New York I feel like a native." By this third and final field trip, the kids felt totally capable of navigating the subways, using maps and, most importantly, talking with people.
Shortliffe, a 30-year DHS veteran, began the program in 1979. "We wanted kids in this course to learn about urban spaces by direct experience and hands-on teaching."
Started by her and two colleagues, "Humanities" developed as an offshoot of another course that spent only a small amount of time studying urban environments like New York. According to Shortliffe, "People used to be afraid of New York. It was going through a real turning point. But there was always so much to offer."
Nowadays, "Humanities" is one of the most popular courses at Darien High. Other groups had equally enriching experiences in the city, interviewing ministers from Collegiate Church, meeting teachers at local schools and even serving in a soup kitchen. Shortliffe is able to arrange these meetings simply by networking.
"I do research, and when I go into these neighborhoods I talk to people who can hopefully help us out. Sometimes I'll just call churches, synagogues or police precincts."
Shortliffe says her course offers kids the chance to develop "skills students can take with them and, most importantly, confidence."
"Sometimes an adult will come up to me while we're in Grand Central and explain he was in the class 10 years ago, 20 years ago," the teacher said. "They recognize my clipboard."
Click here to sign up for Daily Voice's free daily emails and news alerts.