Lara Buckheit, a 19-year-old aspiring journalist, has long held a passion for writing She admits that she was one of those students who thrived in her Indian River High School English courses, analyzing in detail the Old English epic poem “Beowulf” and William Shakespeare’s “Macbeth,” among other typical samplings of classic literature.
As a communications major at Delaware Technical Community College, however, Buckheit’s assignments are very different, demanding skills from her that were not honed earlier.
“We’re expected to learn how to express our opinions and identify arguments that will enable us to debate a variety of topics,” she says.
The reality for Delaware high school graduates is that they must carefully maneuver a gap in content and focus between high school and college English classes. Today’s college English courses require more use of reasoning, logic and argumentation instead of the typical literary analysis and self-expression that has been taught in school for generations.
“We have determined that there are deficiencies in student writing skills,” says Shelley Rouser, an associate with the Delaware Department of Education. “More students are going to remedial classes in college.”
Part of the reason, she says, is that high school students have not been assessed in writing since 2010, when Delaware replaced the Delaware Student Testing Program with the Delaware Comprehensive Assessment System. Teachers have placed less emphasis on writing and more on the skills that are included in the statewide assessment.
The deficiencies in student writing are also more prevalent now, as the state’s leading educators revamp how they teach under the common core state standards. The set of national benchmarks, adopted by nearly every state, addresses the skills public school students should master in language arts and mathematics in grades K-12. Rouser is leading the state’s Common Core implementation.
The new standards, which went into effect this year, require more exposure to nonfiction writing, as well as history, social studies, science and technical documents. The national standards require that nonfiction titles make up 70 percent of the 12th grade curriculum.
Common core standards are a clear set of shared goals and expectations that determine what knowledge and skills will help students succeed. Local teachers, principals, superintendents and others will decide how the standards are to be met. But the bottom line is that educators must rethink the teaching of reading and writing.
“We will be focusing on writing with more rigor, and we’re showing all the content teachers what (good writing) looks like,” Rouser says.
Classics Fade as New Media Rises
The debate has long existed in America about the degree to which the quality of English high school education has deteriorated as a result of the decline in the teaching of European and American classics.
“We’ve been hearing that we’re in a literary crisis—and that students don’t know how to write—since the 19th century,” says Melissa Ianetta, director of writing at the University of Delaware.
For at least 100 years, teachers have understood that great literature includes the work of many contemporary and diverse storytellers. Yet schools far and wide have continued to focus on fiction, with varying degrees of emphasis on the classics.
Proponents have argued that classics produce themes that unite humanity and show how history repeats itself. A few schools have built their entire curriculums on classics. The Tall Oaks Classical School in New Castle boasts the state’s highest combined SAT score among private schools, at 1905. By spending time on grammar, dialectic and rhetoric, students master a subject and communicate it to others.
Ianetta says that is exactly what she expects of college freshmen. “They need to be able to accomplish something with their writing,” she says.
But reaching that level of ease and proficiency with writing requires work that extends beyond high school, says Patricia Oliphant, principal at the successful Sussex Academy of Arts & Sciences charter school in Georgetown. The school, which plans to expand into a high school in fall, consistently prepares its students with a rigorous curriculum that enables them to reach toward the highest assessment scores in the state.
Oliphant says the challenge in teaching writing is that society’s youngest generations don’t read enough. They’re getting their information from technology rather than the written word. Children who have grown up with video games and YouTube have a harder time relating to black print and the language of classical literature.
“They are definitely listening more than they have ever listened before,” Oliphant says. “But they have not had as much practice and experience reading denser text. This is a life skill, not just a school activity.”
Sussex Academy’s high school program will continue with the expeditionary learning principles now in place at the middle school. It includes exposing students to topics at greater depth. The high school also will use the renowned International Baccalaureate program to instill in students a more global perspective.
Oliphant says being able to study topics deeply instead of widely allows students to use high-level cognitive skills. They learn to reason, synthesize, analyze and solve problems—the skills that will be demanded of all students under the new Common Core State Standards.
The Paradigm Shift
The change in the English language arts standards and curriculum has been described by some as a paradigm shift. Common core state standards are expected to make students college and career ready. Specifically, in their junior and senior years, they will be expected to:
• Develop arguments focused on discipline-specific content.
• Write informative/explanatory texts, including the narration of historical events, scientific experiments or technical processes.
• Use technology, including the Internet, to produce, publish, and update individual or shared writing products in response to ongoing feedback, including new arguments or information.
• Draw evidence from informational texts to support analysis, reflection and research.
• Analyze foundational American documents of historical and literary significance (including The Declaration of Independence, the Preamble to the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address).
• Delineate and evaluate the reasoning in seminal U.S. texts, including the application of constitutional principles and use of legal reasoning (e.g., in U.S. Supreme Court majority opinions and dissents) and the arguments in works of public advocacy, such as a presidential address. (Sources: corestandards.org; corestandards.org/ELA-Literacy)
John Sell, an English teacher at Sussex Technical High School in Georgetown and the 2013 Delaware State Teacher of the Year, says the new curriculum will help teachers challenge students who are savvy with information they can access day and night.
In the past, teachers strived to expose students to literary writing and prompted them to interact with the stories on a personal level.
“There was more of an emphasis on introspection,” says Sell. “Now they’re moving toward more argumentative writing.”
For instance, the study of “Romeo and Juliet” might now also include the reading of “West Side Story,” and then prompt a compare and contrast essay.
Lisa Ali-Turner, an English language arts secondary curriculum specialist, has spent months developing a curriculum with the new standards for the Christina School District. Each theme will include literary and informative pieces from different eras.
“We will be much less dependent on textbooks,” says Ali-Turner. For instance, the 11th grade study of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” a story of racism and rape during the Great Depression, might also require students to read court documents and magazine articles or watch documentaries about court proceedings. The social studies teacher might also continue with the same theme and require additional writing assignments from the students.
“This is a paradigm shift for everyone,” says Ali-Turner. “We’re starting to see all content teachers as reading teachers.”
Beyond exposing students to more nonfiction text and requiring that they use higher-order thinking skills, school personnel must also work more closely with area college educators to better align English language course experiences for the students.
Rouser, the associate with the Delaware Department of Education, says more Delaware students are participating in dual enrollment classes as districts continue to enter into agreements with institutes of higher education so that high school students can pursue college coursework on their own.
Sell has been teaching his students college-level English classes using curriculum from Delaware State University. Earlier this year, Sussex Tech announced a more extensive partnership with Widener University to offer junior and senior students the chance to enroll in and complete college courses.
Wilmington University has also partnered with high school leaders. “We are very eager to ensure that students do not experience a large disconnect from high school to college,” says Kate Cottle, an assistant professor and chair of English and Literature at Wilmington University. “To achieve this goal, we are working with both K-12 and post-secondary educators statewide to make sure that our math and English classes are mapped along the common core state standards descriptors.”
Rouser says this type of partnership will enable high school and college educators to discuss the gaps that exist in student skill sets.
“Having students in college classes will help clarify, in that important senior year, what is expected of students in college,” says Rouser. “We have to work hard to bridge that gap between high school performance and expectations at the college level.”