Faculty Profile: Christopher Winchester
September 27, 2019
Please tell us about your path to Léman.
I did my undergrad and my masters at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, VA. I have a BA in English Lit and a minor in Spanish as well as a master’s in teaching in secondary English Education.
Prior to getting my master’s, I did a year abroad at the Universidad del Salvador in Buenos Aires Argentina. What I really wanted to do in addition to teaching is go overseas. I had an excellent experience in Argentina when I was there, so I went to one of the hiring fairs and ended up getting a position at Fundación Colegio Americano de Quito in Ecuador. There, I taught IB Language and Literature as well as IB Literature. After 3 years there, my wife, Marina Lavalle, who is an Upper School History teacher here at Léman, and I took a year off when we bought an RV and drove around the United States and Mexico. We planned to go to the ISS Fair in San Francisco, where we met Robert Spezzano and Maria Castelluccio and learned about Léman.
What is your educational philosophy?
I think for students to connect with the subject matter, it must be taught in a relatable way. If you make a connection to their lives, they are way more likely to engage with it.
Secondly, I think it should be fun. I hold high expectations and I’m quite strict about being respectful with each other, but, at the same time, I think education should be enjoyable. The less of a chore that it seems, the more they’re going to enjoy it more and the more they’re going to get out of it. I try to do simultaneously things that I know they need to succeed but they will also enjoy. If you can find a fine balance there, then they’re going to be more successful.
When I teach English or Theory of Knowledge, I enjoy researching and learning about the subject matter and I try to bring that to the classroom. And I think when students see that you enjoy it genuinely and you think these things are cool, they are more likely to be interested. I think it’s about positively reinforcing things first and then following up if that’s not working. It’s about joy, fun and then also with rigor. That’s the best thing about the IB courses, is that you have the kids for two years. So, this year I have seniors and I know all of them. We already have our routines established, we’ve got our relationships, they know each other, and we can just hit the ground running. All the expectations are there so we can go into in-depth, intellectual activities.
What do you like about being an educator in an IB School and at Léman in particular?
I like that the IB curriculum is progressive and it gives you a structure without being limiting. The amount of works I can choose or the content I can talk about is vast.
Working at Léman is nice because this really is an international school, so you really do get a very big range of opinions and ideas and I do think that 99% of the time that brings out the strengths. We really do have a diverse group of kids and that’s a positive thing.
TOK is a DP cornerstone class. What sets it apart and what do you hope students learn?
The tagline for TOK is “how do we know what we know?” So, it’s about epistemology and learning. What’s different about the course is it’s not necessarily about the content in the areas as much as investigating the methods and ways in which we develop knowledge in the different disciplines. What is knowledge in a natural science class like chemistry or biology versus knowledge in an arts class? How are those different but what’s the cross over? Are there similar methods in which we gain knowledge in English and mathematics and are there different ways? It’s a tough class at first to wrap your head around, but it’s more about thinking and reflecting and the things we take for granted when it comes to knowledge. We start the class talking about knowledge claims, like “I know this.” Write down five things that you know. How do you know that this is a true statement?
It’s not a philosophy course or a psychology course, but you talk a lot about those kinds of things and it’s its own esoteric IB thing. When the students connect it to real-life situations, like when they do their presentations, they are often already able to see how it applies to their everyday life. Everything from the methods of a painter to the study of the genome. Whatever they’re into they can investigate why, and I suppose they can trust this knowledge and understand it.
As an educator, how do you prepare to teach something that has such a wide range of subject matter?
It takes a lot of time and research. For instance, the math unit is totally out of my comfort level, but it’s interesting stuff. I don’t have to teach them how to do an equation, but there are several critical thinking skills that I must apply myself in order to critique their answers. For instance, do they have specific examples and, one of the things that is unique to this course is they have to consider the other side of their argument. They can’t be successful on any of the assessments without considering the counterclaims, not necessarily disproving themselves, but what might the other side say. It’s about developing those kinds of arguments. None of the course is about “this is what I believe, and I know I’m right,” but rather “I think that this is true, and here are some examples, but there are others that say otherwise.” Nor is it the kind of course where everything is so subjective that nobody has a right or wrong answer. There are methods in which we investigate these things and how do we support these arguments.
I try to understand best those methods and I think that way, I can teach any one of these subjects if I’ve researched these methods and I understand the content. And it’s not about being an expert. It’s also about getting students to teach and discuss and allowing them to be the experts. It’s supposed to relate to the IB courses that they’re taking. It is supposed to reinforce general thinking skills and argumentative skills, so they understand what they’re learning in everything from arts, to science to history. It was hard to learn to teach.
How do the IB and TOK contribute to college- and life-readiness?
As far as life-readiness, they don’t take anything for granted. In a really good way, they are critical of everything. Even your curriculum. They question everything, which is the goal of education.
One of the most important things that the IB teaches is time-management and organization. The kids are intellectual enough to handle any one of these individual courses, but the toughest thing is when they all come at once. The biggest life skill is learning how to prioritize and how to prioritize your time. Other than the critical thinking and the intellectual endeavors, just being able to maturely focus and handle everything that is thrown at them, that’s the key.
What do you like to do in your free time?
I love to do anything outdoors. We do a lot of camping and hiking on the weekends. We go up into the Hudson Valley. This summer, we started surfing. I love living in New York because you get everything the city offers and within an hour north you have hiking and within 45 minutes east you have beaches. If you had asked me five years ago if I would ever live in New York, I would have said you were crazy. But one thing I never realized is that New Yorkers are outside all the time, and I really love living here because of that.