AcademicsJan 8, 2021

updated Jun 21, 2022

Moving beyond A.P.

Hallmark courses allow students to dive deeper into subjects than ever before.

There are five Ping-Pong balls in a bag. One of the Ping-Pong balls is green. Reach into the bag and select a ball. What is the probability it will be the green one?

What are the odds Ms. Sutton will ask you a question such as this in her Hallmark Statistics class? The short answer: probably next to none.

Nolan Oxley

“Hallmark Statistics is built around real-world problems,” explains Math Teacher Joanna Sutton, who introduced the class during the 2019-20 school year. “We’re working with material that is directly relevant to students’ lives, and I want to provide students with applications that not only stress the importance of what they’re learning, but also mean something to them.”

Those concepts — project-based work and deep investigation into subjects of personal interest — are two cornerstones of a reimagined Miss Hall’s curriculum that continues evolving. The latest evolution? “Hallmark” courses.

Introduced in the 2019-20 school year, these forward- thinking, upper-level classes allow for personalized, in-depth, and sustained inquiry. They also provide students with advanced work in the MHS core competencies of vision, voice, interpersonal efficacy, and gumption, and they have supplanted Advanced Placement (AP) classes in the MHS academic program.

Hallmark Statistics was one of nine Hallmark classes — at least one in each academic department — to debut during the 2019-20 school year. for 2020-21, the MHS course catalog included sixteen Hallmark courses. (In all, twenty-one Miss Hall’s classes were redesigned for the 2020-21 school year — and that was before MHS faculty dug into adjusting for online and hybrid learning models because of the coronavirus/COVID-19 pandemic.)

This redesigned curriculum is built around three academic levels. Foundational courses, typically taken as ninth-graders and sophomores, provide students with core skills essential to succeed in each discipline. Electives, typically sophomore year and beyond, offer students a breadth of classroom experiences and opportunities to delve into subject areas they find most interesting. Hallmarks cap the MHS academic experience.

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“These are higher-level, challenging, dynamic, innovative courses,” explains Dean of Academics and Faculty Lisa Alberti ’73. “They’re an opportunity for personal inquiry and investigation and a chance for students to do a deep dive, using the foundational skills they’ve learned in their earlier courses.”

In Hallmark, for example, students work with advanced sources. The classes require motivated students who can work independently, and there is often a public component, an opportunity for students to share what they have learned with the School community. Further, Dean Alberti points out, the idea behind Hallmark is not simply “more,” and Hallmark courses are not meant to be a college experience.“

"We are providing students with an experience that prepares them for college and beyond," she notes. "The skills students are developing now, at Miss Hall’s, are what colleges and universities are looking for in applicants. A Hallmark course gives students a window into college-level coursework and prepares them to excel and contribute at their next school.”

Colleges and universities want students who are involved, independently driven, proactive, and users of knowledge.

Director of College Counseling

The decision to reimagine the MHS curriculum and introduce Hallmark had been in the works for several years, notes Director of Academic Counseling Sarah Virden.

“We wrestled with a number of questions — Is it feasible? Can we do it? What are the options?” Ms. Virden notes, and those conversations extended to college admissions offices. “We asked a lot of questions about how Hallmark would be interpreted and what it would mean for our students, and we were told, ‘You’re not alone.’

Lisa Alberti ’73

“What colleges told us was to describe what Hallmark is and where it lives within the curriculum,” she adds. In other words, they want to know that Miss Hall’s students take the most appropriate and advanced courses available to them.

“Many, many independent high schools have gone in this direction already or are going in this direction,” adds MHS Director of College Counseling Courtney Hatch Blauvelt. “This is not news at all to college admissions offices. We also consulted with them about the skills their most successful applicants need, so those concepts could be built into course development. Colleges and universities want students who are involved, independently driven, proactive, and users of knowledge.”

Prospective students and families have also responded enthusiastically to Hallmark, notes David Hopkins, Director of Admissions and Enrollment Management.

“They are excited by the opportunity for focused, deep learning that allows students and teachers to engage holistically in a subject area and really explore their passions from unique and varied perspectives,” Mr. Hopkins says. “They are excited to build and practice the research and critical-thinking skills that they will need in college while studying topics that are relevant and interesting to their lives.”

Mr. Hopkins notes, however, that Hallmark does require added conversations with families, particularly those who are accustomed to thinking of AP as the gold standard for education and who judge or rank a school by the number of APs offered. “It's very important to communicate to families that Hallmark was developed in consultation with college admissions offices, and to let them know that the skills Hallmark courses build are the skills that colleges are looking for in their applicants,” he adds.

The pandemic forced classes online for the 2019-20 school year’s final weeks, so some of the public presentations did not happen as planned, but there were several of those experiences earlier in the year. Hallmark Humanities students shared their work and sought feedback from students and adults, and MHS adults sat in on review panels as Hallmark Art students presented their work.

In her classroom, Ms. Sutton believes that engaging students in ways that go beyond learning the mathematics of applied statistics resonate more deeply with them. During the course of the year, for example, the class explored social justice issues and election-related issues, two areas of particular interest to the students.

One class project looked at census data for a given area and compared it with the prison population in that same area. Another looked at graphs from news outlets, and showed how those graphs could be manipulated to fit a viewpoint. Other students examined the U.S. Gender Wage Gap, and outlined its economic and social costs.

"The 2019-20 school year was a great entry point,” Ms. Virden notes, adding that each department expanded its Hallmark roster this year. “It allowed us to showcase what is possible, and we saw enthusiasm and investment from the students and faculty. The courses our students have the opportunity to take, whether Hallmark or our electives, are amazing.”