Academic journal article English Journal

Complex Conversations and Simple Rules: (Re)Visioning the Ninth-Grade English Experience

Academic journal article English Journal

Complex Conversations and Simple Rules: (Re)Visioning the Ninth-Grade English Experience

Article excerpt

Data and (at Least Mild) Depression

Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard

Are sweeter; therefore, ye soft pipes, play on

-John Keats, "Ode on a Grecian Urn"

In most English classrooms, we usually hear the sweet melodies-there are always teachers and students who love to engage with "the word and the world" (Freire and Macedo). As literacy leaders, we must listen more carefully for students' unheard melodies. Sometimes we learn that these melodies are bitter. Students' sour sounds require leaders to actualize our most creative selves. We must search for new notes, chords, and instruments that resonate with our students and with the teachers we lead.

A review of three years of student performance data was where our English departments began hearing strange sounds. We discovered that-on average-a quarter of ninth-grade English students across the district were earning Ds and Fs. We also noticed that a disproportionate percentage of struggling pupils were students of color. This began our collective journey to sweeten our introductory English language arts classes for all learners. What follows is our story-a work in progress.

We are all educators in Chicago's western suburbs. Our school district had four high schools that serve more than 8,000 students. For the Midwest, we have a diverse population (50 percent white and 50 percent nonwhite) and approximately a quarter of our students qualify for free and reduced-price lunch. To make sure all students are on track for academic success, our district's leadership team has created many spaces for leaders in each of our four buildings (Glenbard North, South, East, and West) to collaborate with the district office. While our collaborative time has been used for a variety of projects over the years, our student performance data made it clear that we had to look at the ninthgrade curriculum as a logical starting point.

Our curricular (re)vision project truly "took a village." The first stages of the process were led by the four English department chairs (Ben, Laura, Linette, and Sara), the teaching and learning coordinator from central office (Ryan), a building assistant principal (Joan) who acts as point person for English across the district, and three literacy coaches (James, Mike, and Nessa). As the work expanded we developed a team of eight teacher leaders (two from each building), each of whom teaches ninth-grade English.

Before bringing the ninth-grade teachers into the mix, our leadership team had many formal and informal meetings. We met in pairs, small groups, and as a collective to ask why so many of our ninth graders were struggling to earn average grades. In our district (like many others) we were able to identify multiple causes for the disconnect between some students and the curriculum. These included curricular changes at the state and national level-especially as it relates to the incorporation of nonfiction; teacher training that often focuses on literature, not literacy instruction; instruction that emphasizes teaching novels instead of exploring ideas; and curriculum that tends to be more traditional and less flexible. Stand-alone novels often determine units, allowing less space for choice or exploration should a student not be willing or able to engage with an anchor text.

These variables helped us explore ways to collaborate with our respective departments as we (re)visioned our ninth-grade English curricula.

While our primary responsibility is to help students perform better in our classes and on national assessments, affective neuroscience suggests that starting with a performance focus may not allow students to make the essential emotional connections they need to navigate skills and content. University of Southern California neuroscientist Mary Helen Immordino-Yang states, "It is literally neurobiologically impossible to build memories, engage complex thoughts, or make meaningful decisions without emotion . …

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