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The curriculum of the much debated Freshman Humanities course which was implemented for the first time this fall was presented to the D202 School Board at its meeting on Monday, September 12.
“You (have developed) what looks to be an astonishing improvement in the way we are teaching Humanities 1,” said Board member Rachel Hayman who was President during the time that the Board considered and voted on the change. She praised both the rigor of the curriculum and the range of supports available to students. As an extra measure of her enthusiasm she expressed regret that her own children had graduated from the District before the new approach was implemented.
Under the new approach, all freshman students testing at the 40th percentile and above on 8th grade standardized tests will be in the same classroom and will be required to earn honors credit rather than having it conferred upon them by virtue of being in an honors track course.
The D202 Board and administrators implemented this new approach in response to hope that the new structure will provide more opportunity for students, especially minority students, to take more challenging courses in later years at ETHS which they also hope will help to address persistent achievement problems for many minority and low income students. Also, administrators maintain that high achieving students will benefit from the revised, more rigorous curriculum and a more diverse classroom environment.
Dr. Peter Bavis, Associate Principal for Teaching and Learning provided some background for the new curriculum by explaining that like in the past, Freshman Humanities is an “interdisciplinary course that integrates World History and English through a study of human culture.”
“The curriculum is designed to create powerful and meaningful academic experiences where students connect the contemporary world in which they live to events in the past and then project how current events will shape the future,” Dr. Bavis explained. It is “team taught” using a “collaborative approach. Students share the same English and History teachers.”
However, the new curriculum is “more rigorous and aligned to Advanced Placement, College Readiness Standards, and the Common Core Standards,” Dr. Bavis said.
Mark Onuscheck, English Department chair and Jennifer Fisher, History Department chair provided more details for changes in their respective department requirements.
In English, students will now be required to complete several different types of writing assignments, including analytical papers, writing competencies, research projects and writing prompts during semester examinations. Reading assignments are also increased, now including three novels as compared to only one in recent years, as well as plays, short stories, poems and myths.
According to Ms. Fisher, the History curriculum uses the “nationally recognized World History For Us All curriculum as the foundation for a global world history approach.”
The curriculum is now standardized, rather than varying by teacher as in the past. Writing assignments include two document-based questions and two free response essays and research writing projects.
The focus on a more diverse approach to education is also reflected in the perspective of the History curriculum. Rather than being primarily focused on Western civilizations, students will now “explore multiple cultures throughout the world,” Ms. Fisher explained.
Another change for the new curriculum is that students will now be required to earn honors credit as opposed to being granted it by being assigned to an honors track which supposedly had more stringent requirements, a past situation administrators acknowledge was somewhat inconsistent.
Now, all students who enter freshman year reading at or above grade level will be taught the same curriculum and will be eligible to receive honors credit if they meet certain requirements, which Dr. Bavis outlined for the Board.
To qualify for honors credit in either course, students will need to earn 320 of a possible 400 points per semester on a group of common assessments, earn a C or higher on the semester exam and earn a C or higher grade for the semester.
“Why a C?” said Dr. Bavis. “We need to acknowledge that these are freshmen. Making the transition to high school is difficult. We don’t want to punish or hurt kids by setting the bar too high.”
The 400 possible points in History will be earned with the document-based question, 2 research projects and an essay each worth 100 points. In English, during first semester, 100 points can be earned by four different assignments: applied practice in reading, two research papers and an analytic paper. During second semester, there will be a writing competency assessment in place of the reading assignment.
To further assist students and their parents in determining what will qualify as honors level work, the two departments have published a rubric, or guideline, that specifically lays out expectations. According to administrators, the rubric, along with other documents related to the course, can be found through the District’s online Home Access Center.
Recognizing the rigorous nature of the course, Board member Scott Rochelle expressed his concern that some students might struggle with the new expectations.
“I’m concerned about the students in the 40th to 70th percentile,” he said. “How have we prepared for burnout? Anyone who says this isn’t rigorous is nuts.”
Mr. Onuscheck explained that students in the 40th to 50th percentile have a support class.
“They meet with a teacher for a full period later in the day to help them prepare for the next day,” he said. “Those teachers work with students more specifically in the area of skill development.”
Marcus Campbell, Director of Equity and Student Support added that students in the higher percentiles, including the 80th, if they have elected to be in AVID or STAE also receive additional support through those programs.
Board member Gretchen Livingston also praised the curriculum and commented that she wished her children had had the advantage of it.
“I hope to see similar improvement in the sophomore curriculum,” she said. “Otherwise we’ll have perfectly prepared students who drop into a black hole.”
Board member Martha Burns asked what steps the departments had taken to increase the possibility that a diverse group of students’ needs and interests would be met by the curriculum.
Mr. Onuscheck reported that the model had been set up so that “new texts could be tested in the curriculum. We can determine what works with students to engage them. We need to ask what messages we’re sending to students when we select a text and determine how we can instruct the text to stress relevance.”
Despite the positive response by the Board to the curriculum, Board member Deborah Graham warned, “There are still many skeptics in the community. We’re going to have to keep monitoring it.”