Humanities teacher Noah Brennan Sawyer fosters classroom discussions that challenge Oliverian students to better understand themselves and their place in the world.
With parents and a brother who are all teachers, Oli humanities teacher Noah Brennan-Sawyer always had an inkling that he had a future in education. His experience teaching at an alternative day school outside of Boston confirmed it was the career path he wanted to pursue, and opened his eyes to the reality that there’s no such thing as a “traditional learner.” Students, he realized, can best figure out how they fit into the world around them once they discover how to learn about themselves.
We sat down with Noah to discuss what he loves about Oliverian’s students, the ways in which the humanities can enrich their lives, and the importance of a shared, hot meal.
Q: What brought you to Oliverian?
A: I was raised on the campus of a quirky boarding school in southern Vermont. Both of my parents are teachers, my brother’s a teacher, and so it was something that was always in the cards. I couldn’t shake this feeling that I belonged in education.
So, after graduating from Columbia, I began working at an alternative day school outside of Boston, mostly working with students with Asperger’s and other autism spectrum disorders. I worked there for three years and cherished the opportunity to be with these students. People would say that they had “non-traditional learning profiles,” but the more you learn about learning, the more you know that the phrase “traditional learning” is a misnomer and that there isn’t a “traditional” learner. Instead, I found that it could lead to really exciting and interesting academic discussions to have such a diverse set of learners in a classroom together. I fell in love with the work, so I got my Master’s in education from Harvard.
When my fiancée decided she wanted to go to business school, we realized we were going to be coming to this area, and I was lucky enough to stumble upon Oliverian. It had a really similar vibe to my last school: the faculty are very informal, we have very close relationships with our students, we have a lot of freedom in the curriculum choices we make. Coming from my previous position, I loved the chance to work with students who were also square pegs trying to fit into round holes.
Q: In your previous position, were you working with adolescents, or was it a younger population?
A: It was a private, independent school that served as a middle school and high school. About 60 percent to 75 percent of our students were sponsored by school districts that couldn’t provide service for these students.
Q: What’s most exciting about teaching adolescents for you?
A: Growing up on the campus of a high school, I’ve always been around high schoolers, so I understand where they’re coming from. In elementary school, you’re building foundational skills that will be useful later, whereas in high school, students begin to specialize in and identify with certain subjects.
It can be really fun as a teacher to be with these students as they’re figuring out what they’re interested in and who they are as learners. For students going through hard times, it’s nice to be there for them as they ask themselves whether the people they’re becoming are the people they actually want to be; this has been one of the most revelatory things about working with high schoolers for the last five years.
Q: What makes teaching and learning the humanities unique at Oliverian?
A: Humanities here are a little different because it’s a combined social studies and English program. Freshmen and sophomores study World Cultures, and then, as they move through Oliverian, they also explore American Studies. Eventually, there’s a senior humanities course that can be about anything.
For me, these classes are great ways to engage with the school’s mission of helping students find their place in the world as well as their purpose. For World Cultures, that might mean locating yourself in the institutions that have shaped you. We examine what makes a culture in the abstract sense, but we also explore cultures specifically and their relationships with individuals. When students can understand how and why they need their environment but are simultaneously limited by it, they can form really cool relationships with the school — like knowing how they fit in — but also seeing how Oliverian is adapting to them.
In our senior humanities course, we grapple with this question, “What does it mean to find your place in the world?” It’s like a combined ethics, sociology, and literature course with a strong individual writing component so that students can attempt to describe themselves and what they see as their purpose.
With humanities being so broad, I have a lot of freedom to choose what I think is engaging. Students may enjoy it now, but they could also realize years down the line that what they learned was ultimately useful for them.
Q: What’s different about the classroom environment at Oliverian?
A: First, the student-faculty ratio is so low that it gives us the chance to really get to know students and engage with them individually, to draw them out in a way that permits them to engage with others in the room, but also to interact with themselves and their ideas in the most profound way.
Beyond that — and the thing that makes Oliverian what it is — I’d have to say it’s the people. When I say that, I mean the faculty, sure, but also the students. They come in with a broad range of personal experiences, and those experiences, especially in a humanities class, can become the content. I see that as a huge difference about this place — having the students be the focus of the content, rather than having content that’s just presented to the students. They themselves are what they are studying.
Q: Is there a particular type of student that flourishes at Oliverian?
A: Success here looks very different for all of our students. I think the ideal outcome, whether you’ve been here for four years or for four months, is to be able to say that Oliverian was impactful for you.
That said, I think there are probably traits shared by others described as “successful.” I’d say the most important is engagement. If you’re in the classroom and you’re engaged in the learning environment, you’re going to get the most out of it. We do have a lot of students here who are really eager to engage in that process of self-exploration, because a lot of them come from backgrounds where their identities have been marginalized, either by social groups or by institutions. We try to take that up as educators, so students who are interested in that process can get a lot out of it.
Q: What’s your favorite part about what you do?
A: The moments when students’ eyes light up because they have these amazing personal insights are fantastic. But honestly, one of my favorite things is when students really push back against me and what I’m trying to do, because it shows me that they’re bringing a critical awareness of what they want out of a learning environment and making it into a reality. It takes me and a lot of my humanity to realize that they’re right to do that. After all, a lot of interesting work can be done when you listen to students and try to understand what they want out of the experience.
Q: Is there anything else you’d want prospective students to know about Oliverian?
A: The food’s great! My father is the executive chef at a boarding school, so the food aspect of education has always been really important for me. One of the reasons I wanted to be a teacher was because I never wanted to have a lunch break. And at Oliverian, you don’t. We all go upstairs and have a hot lunch together, and it’s always fantastic. Being able to go up and eat a wonderful meal with everyone in the same room is really special.