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Q & A: English Curriculum receiving extensive overhaul (Part 2 of 3)

May 28th, 2019

Part 1 of 3: Committed to Academic Excellence

Part 2 of 3: Q&A on English curriculum overhaul

Part 3 of 3: New English curriculum

Valley Lutheran High School is dedicated to the well being of its students, and it’s never content leaving things “as is” if there’s a better way to prepare students to succeed in the future.

Every 3-to-5 years, departments at VLHS undergo exhaustive reviews to determine whether they’re still meeting the needs of students in today’s academic world, however, the English Department is in the process of undergoing the most extensive curriculum overhaul of any department in the school in the last 20 years.

We sat down with Ms. Weilnau, chair of the English Department, to learn more about the change.

Q — When did the idea for a curriculum change in the English Department first come up?

AAbout two years ago the entire faculty was in a Tuesday morning professional development meeting. Dr.  Meyers had us meeting in our departments and she said told us to imagine what our ideal curriculum would look like if we didn’t have any restrictions–schedule, budget, teaching staff, etc. She basically gave us permission to “blow up” our current curriculum — so over a couple of Tuesday mornings, we did just that! The three of us in the English department discussed the needs we saw in our students based on our experiences with them in the classroom and their scores on various  national tests. We also discussed the strengths and weaknesses of our current curriculum in meeting (or failing to meet) those needs, and the ways that we could improve upon the good things we’re already doing in order to better meet the needs of all students.  The new curriculum that we’ve implemented for next year was born out of those brain storming sessions.

Q — Walk us through the process from when the idea was first discussed to when the new classes were planned and how you prepare for them.

A — In the brainstorming sessions that I mentioned, we determined that some of some of our biggest needs included a better way to differienate for students so that all students can work at the appropriate level of academic challange and rigor — whatever that looks like for each individual student — appealing to student interest and choice in an attempt to get them interested and excited about the literature they will be studying and, hopefully, take ownership of their English education, strenghening the research componenet of our curriculum, and having a writing curriuculum that helps us to focus more narrowly on the very specific writing skills that students need to be ready for the next step–whatever that step might be. We decided that the current English 1,2,3, and 4 system wasn’t the best way to meet those needs. We decided that making the English classes semester classes with specific skill focuses would help us meet students’ needs better–and determined that students would be required to take a semester writing course and a semester literature course (or a year long AP course) every year. Naturally, both writing AND reading we’ll be present in every course, but this new arrangement allows us to focus on a few specific skills to help ensure that students are moving towards mastery in those areas. The semester course arrangement also gives students more freedom to navigate the English curriculum in a way that makes sense for them given their individual strengths, interests, and needs. For example, perhaps we have a student who is a strong reader, but who needs additional support in writing. This new curriculum allows him or her to get the remediation in writing that he or she needs while allowing him or her to progress on-level in their literature instruction. Our old model would have forced that student into a class that remediated both–and that wouldn’t have best meet his or her unique learning needs. We drew A LOT of maps and graphic organizers as we tried to conceptualize what all this would look like as one cohesive program.

Q — Why is this significant? How does this change help prepare students better for what comes next?
A — This new curriculum places a greater focus on academic research–which all of our college bound students will need.  Public speaking instruction is also embedded in each of the writing and literature classes so that students learn to present their ideas not only in writing, but also orally.  Our curriculum includes a new interpersonal communication class that will hone skills that ALL students, not just the college bound ones, will need for future success. Additionally, this plan lets us focus on the English skills that all people need for success in college and career without having to sacrifice the art of studying literature that is so important in helping students navigate their understanding of the world and their place within that world; one of my favorite quotes concerning the study of literature — it’s on my classroom wall — explains the importance of literature study perfectly, “That’s part of the beauty of all literature.  You discover that your longings are universal longings, that you’re not lonely and isolated from anyone.  You belong” (F. Scott Fitzgerald).  Students need that, and it’s so easy–in our quest for college and career readiness–to forget that we’re also preparing them for life. I sincerly hope that their life encompasses more than their future careers. As more and more schools push literature to the side in favor of non-fiction texts and increased writing instruction; this new curriculum allows us to do both well. Our students should be able to read, argue, write, research, and communicate with the best of them, but they’ll also have experience–through their study of literature–wrestling with big questions about a variety of important topics. They’ll learn to respond to tragedy, find beauty in unlikely places, understand the importance and power of langague, and meet characters who will change and challange them . And, most importantly, as we teach them to read and respond to literature through the lens of their Christian worldview we hope that we’re teaching them to “read life” in the same way.
Q — What are you most excited about in regards to the new curriculum?
A — I’m most excited about the literature seminars.  I’ve always arranged my AP Courses thematically, so I’m excited to be able to do so in the other literature courses, as well. I love that students will be able to appeal to their own interests as they choose these courses, and I hope it makes them more willing to read (for both pleasure and academic necessity). Getting students reading has always been one of my educational goals, and I hope that the choice they’re given in these classes helps foster or rekindle a love and appreciation for the written word.  I’m also a nerd, and I’m super excited to begin planning these classes!! In my experience, my excitment often rubs off on students so I’m eager to begin teaching them in the fall. I’m also excited that this new curriculum gives our students the ability to move more freely through the English curriculum–in ways that meets their individual needs and interests. I’m also excited that the semester class arragnement allows those students who are interested to “double-up” on English courses if they so desire like they can in other curricular areas.