Nearly two dozen new English classes are running this year. Here’s why that is and what it means for students.
BY FIA GALLICCHIO, ’22; SAFIA MALHOTRA, ’24; BROOKE MASON, ’22; AND JAMES UNDERWOOD, ’23. GRAPHICS BY LUCY O’BRIEN, ’22. PHOTOS BY BELLA VANMETER, ’22.
Shakespeare. Russian Literature. Books and Cinema. These were some of the classes that greeted students during scheduling week last year. These offerings—three among many—reflect a broader shift in how English language arts is taught at UAHS.
For years, students’ English language arts path was fairly simple. As freshmen, students could choose between Freshman Literature and Composition (FLC) and the honors version of that course, HFLC. Sophomores chose between the sophomore equivalents of these courses, SLC and HSLC.
As upperclassmen, students’ options marginally broadened with students being able to pick between on-level, AP, IB and College Credit Plus English classes.
A small handful of semesterlong English elective courses, such as etymology and creative writing, were also offered throughout this time. Still, for the most part, students selected between limited yearlong options. But this previous model was replaced this year with the 2021-22 program of studies, which marked a sharp pivot in the English classes taught at UAHS.
FLC and SLC have lived on under the new system but in a different form: underclassmen now select one yearlong “ELA Foundations” course from a spate of themed options for their grade. Each ELA Foundations course is offered in both honors and on-level options. These courses cover the same content by grade level in their first semester but branch off to their respective focuses after winter break.
After sophomore year, English classes have seen a still more drastic change. Whereas English classes previously were mostly offered as yearlong commitments, the 2021-22 school year ushered in a suite of more than a dozen semesterlong courses, most of them brand new. These courses, dubbed “ELA Explorations in Literature,” are not sectioned off for juniors and seniors only but rather are available to all upperclassmen.
Beyond these ELA Explorations courses, juniors and seniors are still able to take traditional AP classes—typically AP Language and Composition for juniors and AP Literature and Composition for seniors—as well as IB and College Credit Plus options.
WHY AND HOW
There was not one sole reason why the ELA department felt the need to update the courses available for students, but rather a conjunction of underlying motivators. The biggest of these was the desire to build student choice into course scheduling.
“We were wanting to add in choices for students so that… they had some options ahead of time that they could choose from and perhaps, be more invested in as a result,” English teacher and ELA department co-chair Meredith Niekamp said.
This desire to implement more choice in students’ scheduling soon launched conversations within the ELA department. Eventually, the idea for specialized, thematic language arts classes came to be. Those conversations began informally years ago before gaining further traction.
“It began fluidly, reached a tipping-point pretty quickly, and then it was a very concerted, directed effort,” English teacher Melissa Hasebrook, who was department chair until 2019, said.
That tipping point came during the 2019-20 school year, with Niekamp helping to spearhead the effort. In November of that school year, several members of the English department went to a National Council for Teachers of English (NCTE) conference. The NCTE aims to “improve the teaching and learning of English and the language arts at all levels of education,” according to the organization’s website.
English teacher Leah Miller was one teacher present at the NCTE convention.
“Everything we kept hearing at the conference was that student choice was really, really important in engagement, and then consequently student learning,” Miller said. “So the goal was if students chose [their courses] and had some choice in their learning, that they’d be more engaged.”
In the summer of 2020, which came after COVID-19 cut the 2019-20 school year short, all teachers in thedepartment were invited to optional meetings to discuss new ideas.
“We spent that summer of 2020 meeting via Zoom and just hashing the ideas out,” Hasebrook, who was present at several of those meetings, said. “Hours and hours and hours went into that, hashing those ideas out until we came forward with, ‘Here’s the plan.’”
These summer meetings were part of a broader department-wide effort.
“Everyone in the department was involved in the change of program,” English teacher Marlene Orloff, who later joined Niekamp as department co-chair, said. “We listened to the voices of every department member.”
Once the basic idea had been set down, teachers began proposing courses more formally. That process afforded teachers a large degree of creative freedom, but it took place within the entire department.
“We had open, rich, intellectual discussions about these courses, and it was really one of the highest modes of professionalism you can have—is to be able to say, ‘Hey, I like this idea that you’re proposing, but what if you added this strain as well?’” English teacher Matt Toohey said.
Nonetheless, teachers had to make sure their courses fit within the scaffolding of standard curriculum requirements.
“We didn’t just say, ‘Hey, I really like this movie; I’m going to teach a whole course on it,’” Toohey said. “So much went into making sure that it was a thematic or genre based approach that still brought in all the necessary skills and all the proper pedagogy for every student.”
These course proposals were also discussed in a meeting with department chairs from across the school, including UAHS vice principal Jennifer Mox.
“I was excited to hear about [the department’s] ideas,” Mox, who also handled scheduling for this year, said. “And I think that they were super passionate about trying to make their classroom and their content more engaging with the students.”
Throughout this process, the department coordinated with various levels of administration. Eventually, a final proposal was made and sent to the building administration before finally reaching district administration for a final review.
“The administration here and the district have been so supportive, every step of the way,” Niekamp said.
UA Schools Chief Academic Officer Keith Pomeroy shared a similar sentiment.
“[The English department] had done quite a bit of work working through their themes, and were able to answer all the questions about standards and how they determined their themes,” Pomeroy said. “So I love when there are ideas like this that come from a department, and they’ve already worked through how they could overcome any obstacles that might be difficult to think through in terms of implementing it.”
From there, the courses were presented to and approved by the Board of Education in January, 2021.
The courses also had to meet National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) requirements. NCAA schools require college-bound student-athletes to have a foundational high school education in order to succeed within the academic expectations in college.
Once the courses had been fully crafted and approved, they were ready to be included in the 2021-22 program of studies and run this year.
THE COURSE CAFETERIA
For the 2021-22 school year, freshmen had four class theme options, while sophomores were able to choose from five. In addition to AP, IB and College Credit Plus courses, juniors and seniors had 15 semesterlong course options.
One of the most popular course choices was the freshman Star Wars course taught by Michael Donelson.
“This year, I have three honors and two on-level Star Wars [classes] and fairly good turnout numbers,” Donelson said. “There were seven sections signed up. Of course, I can only teach five.”
Since the goal of the new classes is to teach a standard curriculum in more engaging and personalized ways, Donelson has implemented Star Wars into many aspects of the course.
“For the narrative unit, we wrote a Star Wars story, so it already had characters that were developed, and then we told [students to] look for places where the story could be expanded or conflicts could be explained,” Donelson said. “All the vocabulary words come directly out of Star Wars scripts; all the grammar examples are from Star Wars.”
While courses such as Star Wars are based on media franchises, other courses explore literature through the lens of a certain culture. Toohey, for example, teaches two classes with cultural focuses: Irish Literature and Russian Literature. Those courses explore the literary history and heritage of their respective countries.
Several other courses aim to connect contemporary life with traditional literature, such as Orloff’s honors Young Adult and Classics course. Each quarter, Orloff pairs a young adult book with a classic book, and students compare and contrast the two.
“We read ‘The Book Thief’ and ‘Fahrenheit 451.’ We talked about censorship of books, and it was interesting because one was a historical novel, one was dystopia,” Orloff said. “The next quarter we read ‘Just Mercy’ and compared it to ‘To Kill a Mockingbird,’ which allows us to have a richer, deeper understanding of the characters in ‘To Kill a Mockingbird.’”
In addition to the courses running this year, the courses on next year’s program of studies include ones about true crime, feminist literature and other topics.
ONE SEMESTER LATER
Now that one semester under the new system has passed, students and teachers have gotten a taste of the new course options. Donelson said that his new classes were warmly received by community members.
“There was not really any pushback from parents or students,” he said. “In fact, they seem to welcome the idea of having the change.”
As all of the new upperclassmen ELA Explorations courses are one semester long, teachers had to adjust to spending less time with more students.
Niekamp, department chair, said this was a positive.
“We get to know more students now that it’s one semester, which I love,” Niekamp said.
Still, the semester approach also means that teachers have less time to get to know their students.
“I know the one complaint that some teachers and students have is that it’s hard to foster strong relationships with teachers if you’re only in there for one semester,” Toohey said.
Additionally, some students and teachers believe switching courses mid-year is difficult and creates problems.
“I don’t think it’s good to switch language arts halfway through the year,” Jett Corso, an eighth grader at Hastings Middle School who will soon schedule his freshman courses, said. “And I don’t like to restart just over Christmas break and have two new classes for no reason.”
Challenges are also introduced in the pacing of courses, especially since this is their first year being run.
“You had that luxury before of, like, ‘Hey, I’ll see you after winter break, and we can finish some things up.’ And now you’ve got to be finished by winter break,” Miller said. “So the pacing took me a little while to figure out first semester.”
Nonetheless, many students have found themselves more engaged than they previously had been, achieving one of the main goals of the new courses.
This was the case for junior Lauren Talarzyk, who said that her “Hamilton” course was much more interesting than previous years’ language arts classes.
“It was not boring at all,” Talarzyk said. “I mean, it was probably partially due to the people in the class, but Mrs. McPherson is fantastic. She’s a wonderful teacher. She just made it such a fun atmosphere.”
Freshman Joey Shepherd, who is currently in the Honors Star Wars course, also felt positively about the new language arts classes.
“I feel like there’s a lot of good talking happening, like good communication between teachers and students,” he said.
Teachers have also noticed that their students are more engaged thanks to the new course options.
“Kids are really engaged,” Hasebrook said. “Kids like it; they’re coming to class prepared.”
Additionally, some parents have reached out to teachers regarding the new courses and their children’s enjoyment of them.
“Probably the greatest compliment I received was from a parent who said her child had lost interest in school in like the second grade,” Donelson said. “But then, because of the Star Wars class, she’s like, ‘I don’t know what you’re doing in there, but he can’t wait to get to class. And so keep doing it.’”
Donelson said he even noticed an uptick in his students’ grades after the first semester.
“For the most part, [they’re] higher than they’ve been previously,” Donelson said. “Obviously, you still have some students that are not performing, but I have a hard time determining whether that’s the curriculum or whether that’s COVID.”
Engagement has also increased for teachers, several of whom reported having taught the same curricula and books for years. Now, they have the opportunity to craft and teach a new course more suited to their individual interests and skills.
“[Students] sense that maybe the teacher needs a change of scenery as well,” Toohey said.
For Talarzyk, that change in scenery meant new insights into connections between Shakespeare’s works and “Hamilton.”
“I feel like I was able to learn a lot more,” Talarzyk said. “I was actually understanding Shakespeare, which is really weird.”