By the second act of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the title character has become unhinged. A conversation with his father’s ghost terrifies him so much that he appears before Ophelia pale-faced and disarrayed, “his doublet all unbraced; No hat upon his head.” Sentinel High School English teacher Sarah Pohl sometimes asks her students to draw portraits of Hamlet before and after his paranormal encounter. The exercise highlights character development, she says, and helps the students connect with the material.
“If it’s not engaging, they won’t do it,” she says. “You pull in the fun, you pull in the creativity, you try to be a little bit edgy, try to meet them where they are.”
But Pohl finds herself at odds with the direction Missoula County Public Schools administrators want to take English Language Arts curriculum. And she’s not alone. More than a dozen parents and teachers submitted public comment to MCPS this month criticizing a proposal to adopt district-wide a high school English curriculum developed by the New York State Education Department. Those comments pan the curriculum, known as EngageNY, as “rigid,” “canned” and “depersonalized.”
EngageNY’s English curriculum divides each year of high school into four modules, each with its own objectives and reading materials. The modules are subdivided to the lesson level, with each designed to span a single class period. EngageNY’s curriculum is designed to align with the Common Core education standards that Montana’s Board of Public Education adopted in November 2011.
In a meeting with the Indy last week, Pohl, Reinicke and two other Sentinel teachers shared concerns about the recommended change. According to Pohl, MCPS English Language Arts staff were informed of the district’s intention to standardize the English curriculum at a pair of meetings in late February, when they were told by the district’s Teaching and Learning Department that the first year of EngageNY would be implemented on a voluntary basis, and that some leeway would be allowed for discretionary teaching material. The curriculum wouldn’t apply to Advanced Placement classes. Pohl says there’s been no student-performance data presented to justify the change.
“It seems like at [teachers] union meetings, whether it’s elementary teachers or science teachers or math teachers, the people most appalled by this process are the most expert and the most engaged teachers that I know,” says Sentinel art teacher Tim Nielson. “This is my 23rd year teaching, and I’ve never seen a controversy like this around curriculum.”
Teaching and Learning Director Elise Guest is aware of the concerns, but isn’t convinced they reflect the opinions of all teachers in the district. In fact, she says, it was a task force composed of educators from across MCPS that zeroed in on EngageNY in the first place. The goal was to establish a curriculum that would be consistent from classroom to classroom.
“It’s not about a fear that there’s been something done wrong in the past at all,” Guest says. “It’s just our next level of improvement and constantly looking for ways to better ourselves.”
The MCPS Board of Trustees will review the district’s presentation on the curriculum change on May 8.
Distaste for the EngageNY approach starts with the limitations it places on teacher autonomy and creativity and quickly spirals outward. Reinicke says the limited discretion offered to teachers under the curriculum isn’t adequate to accommodate grammar skills, vocabulary and state-constitution-mandated Indian Education For All requirements, let alone personalized touches like Pohl’s Hamlet-drawing exercise. Nor, Reinicke continues, would the curriculum allow the flexibility to revisit lessons as needed.
“Part of good teaching is to be able to reteach things if students don’t get it. And if there’s no time to reteach because you’re on a script, you just proceed whether kids are proficient or not,” Reinicke says.
Pohl is perhaps most incensed by the dearth of novels in the EngageNY curriculum, under which English students aren’t required to read a full book until junior year. By the time they graduate, they’ll have read just three. Gone is The Great Gatsby, Pohl notes, along with Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, Elie Wiesel’s Holocaust memoir Night, and the dystopian classics 1984 and Fahrenheit 451. Abandoning such keystone texts, Pohl says, is a disservice to public education.
“What we want to hear is that this program is so incredibly effective for getting students excited about learning … that this program makes kids better thinkers and writers and readers,” Pohl says. “Nothing has been able to substantiate that.”