Still On the Slippery Slope of West HS’s English 10?

Last week, families of rising juniors at West High School received a copy of the Junior School Counseling Newsletter. On page 2, there is a section entitled “English Course Selections for 2006/07.” The paragraph reads as follows:
Students are required to earn four credits of English for graduation, and this must include one semester of composition beyond tenth grade. Students in grades 11 and 12 are given a choice of non-sequential semester electives, each providing one-half credit towards graduation. College preparatory students, however, should check the colleges of their choice to be sure about what courses are acceptable for college admisison, i.e., some colleges might not accept courses in such areas as theater or media for admission.
The second half of the first sentence (assuming it is not a typo) reflects an important change in the English requirement for graduation at West — one that has never been discussed with students and parents and one that is surprising and confusing, given the stated goals and content of English 10.
It is also not consistent with what’s stated in the 2006-07 course catalogue. (Thanks for bearing with me for including the complete entry here.)

Students are required to earn four credits of English for graduation. Ninth and tenth grade English is required of all students; in grades 11-12, students are given a choice of nonsequential semester elelctives, each providing one-half credit towards graduation. College prepatory students, however, should check the colleges of their choice to be sure about what courses are acceptable for college admisison; i.e., some colleges might not accept courses in such areas as theater or media for admission.
The classes of 2007 and 2008 must take one semester of composition beyond ninth grade; any one of three composition offerings meets this requirement. Please note: Intermediate Writing Workshop (IWW) will be offered ONLY first semester, 2006. A student may select more than one English course in a semester. Students wishing to apply to college are advised to take a minimum of seven semesters of writing, literature, and/or grammar.
Some courses may not be offered both semesters. The number of sections of a course is dependent on student selection and teacher allocation.

As I put all of this together, it seems to me that — sometime between the printing of the 2006-07 course catalogue and the printing of the Junior School Counseling Newsletter — the West administration has decided to require an additional semester of composition for graduation.
Now, I’m all for people (of all ages) becoming better writers. I value the written word and admire the ability to craft a sentence. I fully expect my sons — both of them excellent writers — to happily and voluntarily take more writing courses than will be required of them in high school. While I value good, clear exposition, however, I do not support secrecy and unilateral decision-making — especially in highly charged contexts, which West’s English 10 has so clearly been.
I also cannot help but wonder what the motivation has been for the additional requirement? (In case it hasn’t occurred to you, the new requirement will mean that West juniors and seniors will be able to take fewer English electives, many of which are honors courses … unless they are willing to take extra English courses.)
Another parent has suggested that the new requirement seems to reflect an expectation that English 10 will fail. Why? Well, if you recall, English 10 was created by integrating the contents of the several most popular 10th grade English courses, including “Intermediate Writing Workshop” (“IWW”). One of the goals of English 10 is to integrate writing assignments with the reading of great literature, something that did not happen in IWW. The rationale — which I find quite reasonable — is that the lessons of good writing will be more easily learned and more deeply retained if they are taught that way. But if that’s supposed to be an improvement over the old system, why start requiring yet another semester of composition (especially without discussing it with students and parents)?
Another frustration is that many of us parents suggested additional English requirements like this as a more pointed and potentially more effective strategy for addressing the problem of underperformance of certain groups of students in English — y’know, something for the administration to try instead of the complete overhaul known as English 10. It just seemed reasonable to us that if one of the problems was that some groups of students weren’t taking certain types of English courses (the composition ones and the more challenging ones), one good solution might be to require them to take one or more of those courses. Oh, well.
Gosh, I am hoping this is a typo in the newsletter. I have a call in to the West Counseling Department about it (even though another parent has been unable to get an answer to the same question). Stay tuned.

2 thoughts on “Still On the Slippery Slope of West HS’s English 10?”

  1. West’s Senior School Counseloring Newspaper included this same new English requirement for graduation as the Junior one did. From where did this new policy originate? Why does it exist? The older policy of requiring all students to take at least one semester of writing/composition was a fine one. Previously, students were highly encouraged to take such a course in 10th grade; most did, taking Intermediate Writing Workshop (IWW) to fulfill this requirement. Some voluntarily took additional writing courses as well (e.g., Advanced Writing Workshop, Creative Writing) while others choose to concentrate on literature and communication arts ones (e.g., theatre, public speaking), instead, in 11th and 12 grade. It is neither fair nor practical to now tell rising seniors whose 12-grade schedules have already been determined that they may need to change their schedules to include another writing course if they haven’t taken one since 10th grade and weren’t planning to take one this year. Also, one of the rationalizations we were given for the introduction of a 10th-grade English Core course was that it is better to teach writing and composition integrated within the context of literature rather than as a freestanding course. Thus, the content of IWW is, supposedly, now included within English 10. If this is really true, why are students now being required to take another freestanding writing/composition course in 11th or 12th grade, especially given that all of West’s literature courses include extensive writing exercises? Is the real reason for the new requirement that English 10 is, in reality, going to be taught at a lower level than IWW had been, i.e., the curriculum is being dumbed down so the lower-achieving students in this heterogeneously grouped course can still hope to pass it? Once again, West is instituting new policies without either an opportunity for feedback from students and their parents or sufficient advanced warning. Hopefully, all rising seniors will at least be grandfathered into the older rules.

  2. I spoke with Becky Bebber-Wells (head of West’s Counseling Department) earlier this morning and I am happy to report that the junior and senior newsletters contain inaccurate information. The correct explication of West’s English requirements is on page 23 of the 2006-07 Program of Studies (as well as above, in my original post).

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