New English options for seniors
November 20, 2018
“At the beginning of the year we had a meeting with the English Department, and it was at that time it was shared that we could bring electives back,” Principal Spence Evans said. New district Superintendent Jenny Risner and new director of curriculum and instruction Amy Lanegave the green light to begin the process of bringing back choice into the Ames High English curriculum, Evans said. Students having a true choice in English courses is something that hasn’t existed since 2012 at Ames High.
For English Teacher Joe Brekke, the meeting also signaled the end of years of feeling ignored by the district administration. “It affects the way you do your job when you feel like you are devalued as a human and as an expert in something. And then you feel like you have no agency for change. It’s demoralizing,” Brekke said. “I’ve been carrying that for years, and then, in one moment, somebody said we want you to do what you know is the right thing to do for kids.”
Since the cancellation of electives, students and teachers have been stuck in the current three-tiered course progression of general 9th, 10th, 11th and 12th English classes. “The interpretation from our past district administration was that we couldn’t have electives and get the core accomplished,” Principal Spence Evans said. The Iowa Core is a set of academic standards passed by the state that all Iowa schools must comply with. At the time, few English teachers were satisfied with this explanation.
“It was evident if you looked at other schools throughout the state of Iowa, they had electives,” Brekke said. “So for our administrators to say it couldn’t be done was ridiculous. It was a lack of creative problem solving on their part.” Brekke described the past administration censoring his ability to even voice these complaints about the changed English curriculum. “We were instructed not to talk about it, and it was implied that our jobs may change if we talked about it to people in the community,” Brekke said. However, this controversial history is in the past. With the new superintendent and new director of curriculum and instruction came a new interpretation of the Iowa Core that allowed the electives to be restored.
The changes will allow seniors to choose between a variety of classes second semester to complete their English credit requirements. Earlier this year, seniors filled out a series of interest polls that narrowed the new class choices down to six: World Literature, Creative Writing, Multimedia Composition, Activism and Social Justice Literature, Independent Survey of Literature, and AP Language and Composition. Students described feeling excited to be able to take classes in something they are more passionate about.
“I’m really excited about mostly the creative writing one, because I’ve wanted to do fiction all four years,” said senior Madeline Taylor. Taylor described courses as repeating themselves year after year and as very heavy on literary analysis. “I think most of the writing I have really enjoyed I’ve just done outside of school,” Taylor said. This work has earned her various awards, including Scholastic gold and silver keys as well as local writing contests.
Brekke is excited to design a curriculum with passionate students like Madeline in mind. He will be teaching Creative Writing and World Literature, two classes he taught pre 2012. He hopes this increased engagement will allow for greater learning for most students. Beyond being able to work with more engaged students, Brekke is also excited to teach classes that align more closely with his own passion and expertise, especially in Creative Writing. Brekke said the process of restoring the options is partly reviewing the classes Ames High has offered in the past, and partly creating an updated and responsive curriculum.
He described himself as a different teacher than he was back then, which meant he would be bringing new techniques and literature to his lessons. Madeline expressed some concern that the process feels rushed, that it is a little crazy to implement all these new classes in the time frame of a semester. Brekke acknowledged it won’t be perfect, but said he isn’t afraid to leave the old system behind. “Of course it’s extra work, but it’s extra work we want to do. So we’re motivated to put in extra time in the weekend and in the evening,” Brekke said. “I don’t feel nervous or like we aren’t going to do it justice.
“When we offer kids choice, we are doing it justice.”