AcademicsAug 8, 2022

updated Nov 20, 2023

College Prep 2.0

Hallmark Courses offer 21st century skills for college and beyond

(Amy Inglis ’08 — Avida Love Photography)

When students leave Ellie Kreischer’s Hallmark Art Intensive class, they do so with a portfolio that showcases their talents as artists and spotlights their stories as creators.

Students in the Hallmark Humanities Seminar will have researched and analyzed primary sources, engaged with experts, and worked independently to see a months- long project through from concept to public presentation. Students in the Hallmark Biotechnology, Environmental Science, and Inorganic Chemistry classes, meanwhile, will come away with hands-on laboratory and learning experiences gained while exploring relevant current fields.

Perhaps most importantly, students in each of these classes — and all MHS Hallmark courses — will have learned alongside expert faculty who are knowledgeable about the subjects they teach and intensely committed to sharing that knowledge with students.

“When I look back at my education, nothing is more powerful than being in a class with a teacher who is truly passionate about what they are teaching and when they are mentoring you through challenging material,” notes Dean of Academics and Faculty Lisa Alberti ’73. “For me, it was (longtime MHS Math Teacher) Jim Ervin and his love of geology. He was a great math teacher, but when he taught geology, he came alive and shared his passion in a way that made me love that subject forever.”

Such is the hallmark of the Miss Hall’s Hallmark courses. Now in their third year, these forward-thinking, upper-level classes offer students personalized, in-depth, and sustained inquiry, and allow teachers to bring their expertise into the classroom and teach beyond the test. They also expose students to advanced work in independent research, in-depth analysis, and critical-thinking, skills sought by colleges and universities in prospective students.

Interdisciplinary and inquiry-based, the classes have supplanted Advanced Placement (AP) classes as the most challenging courses in the MHS academic program, and the reception from students, faculty — and colleges — has been overwhelmingly positive.

“We have found students to be incredibly engaged and incredibly willing to put the hours of work into the course, just because it means so much to them,” says Dean Alberti. “Our faculty have responded enthusiastically because it allows them to teach subjects they love to teach, and the success of the Hallmark experience is also something that speaks very well to our colleges, because they can see that if a student can handle the rigors of a Hallmark class and that level of independence, they’ll be prepared for a similar experience in college.”

Colleges expect students to have done interdisciplinary, collaborative, project-based work, which is what Hallmark courses — and all our upper-level electives — offer.

Director of College Counseling

Indeed, how colleges would perceive the transition from Advanced Placement to Hallmark courses was the subject of considerable discussion within and beyond MHS in conversations dating to at least 2016, if not earlier. Extensive research went into the decision, notes Director of Academic Counseling Sarah Virden, whose hats at MHS have included two decades as a college counselor.

“For many years prior to beginning our Hallmark program, we had been working closely with our college partners with what we were planning for our curriculum, and we were not surprised to learn that our partners were very excited and interested in our plans,” explains Ms. Virden.

“We determined we could provide advanced, rigorous courses that would better prepare students with the skills they will need in college,” adds Dean Alberti. “Our Hallmark courses are designed with years of research on our part and looking at the academic skills, the habits of mind — the ability to work independently, to conduct in-depth research, and to engage with challenging materials — that students need as a stepping-stone to their college experience.”

Director of College Counseling Courtney Hatch Blauvelt concurs.

“Colleges expect students to have done interdisciplinary, collaborative, project-based work, which is what Hallmark courses — and all our upper-level electives — offer,” notes Ms. Hatch Blauvelt, who worked in college financial aid before joining Miss Hall’s in 2017, and who continues to work closely with admissions officers across colleges and universities.

The student experience paints that picture. Take Hallmark Art Intensive, for example. The course is designed for students who are ready to make a leap from working off assignments from a teacher to concept-driven art-making practices that advance their work as artists.

“The portfolios that students are making in Hallmark Art tell their story on their college applications,” notes Ms. Kreischer, the Elizabeth Gatchell Klein Chair of the Expressive Arts Department. “This is work that’s so meaningful to them, because they made it for reasons that aren’t just to check a box or get a ‘5’ on an AP portfolio. They made it because they care about it.”

Likewise, students in the Hallmark Humanities seminar will have engaged in advanced-level research into a chosen topic of interest. Dr. Alexander is the History Department Chair and co-teaches the Hallmark Humanities seminar with English Teacher Rebecca Cook-Dubin. He draws a comparison to a course he used to teach, AP U.S. History.

“That course is very content-driven; it’s a very 20th century course,” he explains. “It was developed in a time when information was not democratized, so a content-based class had merit, because that was the way you learned the material. With the Information Revolution, that’s become irrelevant. Leaving behind AP has allowed me to offer a Hallmark Renaissance in Italy class.”

This new Hallmark class is inspired by Dr. Alexander's doctoral work on 15th-century court cases, while also exploring the cultural explosion between the 14th and 16th centuries.

The 2022-23 course catalog includes 16 Hallmark classes and 25 Upper Level Electives. Together, these challenging courses offer MHS students opportunities to design an academic path that suits their interests and puts them on a path for success in college. Hallmark Environmental Science is one of four new Hallmark courses next year. Calculus II, Women’s History, and Dr. Alexander’s Renaissance Italy class are the others.

Moving beyond the AP curriculum enabled the Science Department to bring to the forefront course offerings that allow for deep dives into relevant current topics both in its Hallmark and Upper Level elective offerings, notes Department Chair Donna Daigle.

“We were able to disengage from a curriculum dictated by an outside source, and as an instructor, it really opens up the world — the sky’s the limit,” notes Ms. Daigle. “When we made this shift, it really opened up the capacity for us to teach from our passions and bring that to our students in a way unavailable to us when teaching based on the AP standards.”

A great example is Hallmark Environmental Science, being taught next year by Science Teacher Kennedy Raimer.

“That is a class that is focused on the local environment, our local ecosystem,” adds Ms. Daigle, who previously taught AP Environmental Science. “Kennedy has been an advocate for more field work, and it’s really her passion. What she brings as an expert in the field is invaluable.”

Students in Science Teacher Jennifer LaForest’s Hallmark Inorganic Chemistry class recently completed a project in which they built 3-D models, researched a particular drug’s impact on society, then produced posters to illustrate their findings. Ms. Daigle introduced her Women’s Health and Global Issues class a decade ago. She noticed, while teaching Anatomy & Physiology previously, that much of the study materials were based on the “average” male body.

“There is so much going on in the world about women’s health, and I thought that at an all-girl school, it was an opportunity for us to explore this topic in a course,” she adds. “I saw an opportunity and pursued it, and to have that autonomy as an educator to come up with an idea and pursue it is something I really value about Miss Hall’s.”

With the development of Hallmark Courses, Ms. Hatch Blauvelt notes, however, that the goal for students should not be to “stack” as many Hallmark classes as possible into their course load. Rather, colleges prefer to see a student who carefully chooses courses based on academic interest and strengths.

That journey begins in the 9th and 10th grades, with Foundational Courses that provide skills — research, writing, and analysis — that lay the groundwork for success in upper-level coursework. As students emerge from the sophomore experience, they meet with Ms. Virden and Ms. Hatch Blauvelt, in coordination with classroom teachers, advisors, and parents, to set their academic path for the junior and senior years and beyond.

Upper Level Electives — yearlong and semester classes — and Hallmark courses offer a voice and choice in that path, which is individualized for each MHS student. Academic engagement is high in all of the classes, which provide in-depth study and complement what students are going to be asked to engage in when they get to college.

“Colleges want to see students who have taken a variety of courses,” Ms. Hatch Blauvelt explains. “They don’t expect someone to specialize in high school. They want to know that a student has all of the foundational skills and those higher-level skills of being able to work independently, to do in-depth research, and engage with challenging materials, so that they can specialize when they get to college. Hallmark and Horizons, that’s how our students stand out, not by stacking up exams and tests.”

“Our focus is on preparing students for their future — for college and beyond,” Dean Alberti adds. “We are committed to teaching them to be strong, sturdy learners so that when they head off to whatever environment they are going into, they have strong self-knowledge and are able to navigate the ups and downs they will inevitably encounter.”

Students learn to dig into research, explore multiple sources, and analyze those sources. They work independently, while also collaborating with other students, and they engage with a higher level of content. Many of the courses also seek to make connections with outside experts and organizations that further broaden the student experience. Faculty, meanwhile, have the ability to dive deep into topics and tailor their curriculum.

“You get the deepest engagement when students get to ask questions that can drive their learning, and that’s what you can do in these courses,” Dean Alberti adds.

Students in Hallmark History of Art, for example, took advantage of cultural offerings in the Berkshires, visiting several museums. “I saw how incredibly well-prepared our students are,” notes Dean Alberti, who made the trips with them. “If you are studying art history, you need to learn the vocabulary of art analysis and practice those skills, and you need to see the art. That will set them up to take Art History in college.”

Dean Alberti is particularly proud that courses are listed in more than one department, breaking down pillars between departments and helping students see how learning is connected across disciplines. The Humanities Seminar counts toward an English or History credit, for example, and History of Art as an Expressive Arts or History credit.

As Hallmarks head into their fourth year, she is excited to see the direction they take and how they further evolve. To date, they have been an unqualified success, with students and faculty enthusiastic about the change.

“These classes are rigorous, they are exciting, they are dynamic, and they are an opportunity for faculty to share their expertise with students,” notes Dean Alberti. “Our academic program is designed, and our courses are created, to teach the skills, cover the material, and provide the knowledge so that students will be prepared to flourish in college and beyond.”