Second in a series.
John Donahue’s Honors English 4 was on a roll, tackling “Waiting for Icarus” by Muriel Rukeyser and other college-level poems. Then the class had to stop and switch to a strictly scripted version of Gateway Community College’s remedial English class.
When the new syllabus took effect, the class’s collective heart sank. The thought-provoking poems were replaced by “tedious” basics.
What’s a teacher to do? What’s a student to do?
That was the dilemma facing Donahue’s honors class at Hill Regional Career High School. It was an example of the broad range of dilemmas facing New Haven public-school students and educators as they brace for a new state law, Public Act 12-40, which shifts the burden of remedial education from state colleges and universities to high schools. Because of the law, city kids graduating this spring will not be able to take remedial classes at Gateway Community College—and thus may not be able to enroll at all, because of all the catching up they need to do.
(Click here for a related story on the law and its impact on math class.)
For students in Donahue’s class, the law prompted an unintended consequence: Because of scheduling challenges, honors students who scored well on their SATs found themselves thrown into a back-to-basics catch-up class along with other students who were identified as needing extra help.
Donahue’s students were among those who faced a surprise after Christmas break: They would be placed into a new “refresher course” in the spring of their senior year to get them ready for college. Based on students’ SAT scores, the New Haven public schools this spring put 474 high-school seniors into new refresher math and English classes that mimic remedial Gateway courses. Students will have to score a C or higher in the classes—or else take a special “boot camp” this summer—to be able to enroll in Gateway this fall.
At Career High, 75 of 158 seniors found out in January that they had to take refresher courses in math or English.
For Donahue’s class, the last-minute change means that the entire honors English 4 class—including the half identified as needing extra help based on having scored lower than a 410 on their reading or writing SAT components, as well as those who performed well enough to get into UConn and private colleges—changed to a version of Gateway’s remedial English classes.
Donahue, who has degrees from Harvard and Columbia’s Teachers College, has been working at Career for 10 years. Students who filed into his class on a recent morning gave rave reviews of his Honors English 4 class, which they took in the fall.
“We read interesting poems,” said Maria Rosemond.
“Poems that you really had to think about,” added Alyssa Jennette.
Maria got up from her seat, went over to a hanging file, and pulled out the syllabus from the past semester. She rattled off some of her favorite poems, including, “Acquainted with the Night” by Robert Frost and “Waiting for Icarus” by Muriel Rukeyser.
Now, instead of those poems, they are reading texts such as “TV For Tots: Not What You Remember,” by Jonathan V. Last.
That was the essay Donahue handed out in preparation for a class last week. The essay came from the Blair Reader, one of two new textbooks for the class. Donahue had to assign it because it was one of three mandatory readings for Weeks 5 and 6 of the class. The readings were set in a syllabus that Gateway came up with in collaboration with the New Haven public schools. The syllabus mirrors that of Gateway’s English 043 and 063 classes. Students who get a C or higher will automatically place out of remedial education at Gateway, the most popular destination for graduates of the New Haven school district. For some students, passing the class may mean the difference between being able to go to college or not.
Donahue had a tough crowd to sell on the new course.
“Why am I taking this?” asked Yasmina Hamdaoui (pictured). She said she misses the challenge of Donahue’s fall-semester class.
“I feel like it’s less work,” she said. She said the Gateway course called for “fill-in-the-blanks stuff you’ll get in middle school.” The material feels like “the same thing over and over again,” she said.
“I thought that was unfair” to be placed in the Gateway-aligned class, “because a lot of people aren’t going to Gateway.”
Being put in the class “brings people down mentally,” about “how they think of themselves,” she objected.
The school had to convert Donahue’s two honors English classes to the new syllabus because of a scheduling problem, said Career High Principal Madeline Negron. She didn’t find out until December that the school needed to offer the English 043 class. The students who needed the intervention were dispersed between honors and regular-level English, she said. In math, the school was able to pull students out of 11 different math classes into a new pre-algebra class. But English teachers didn’t have the same capacity to create new classes. So the school converted its English 4 classes to follow Gateway’s guidelines. About half of the students, those with SAT scores below 410 in reading or writing, will be taking it for credit at Gateway; the rest will take it only for high-school credit.
Students spent the first part of last week’s class reading Last’s TV For Tots essay, which argues that cartoons have become too “feminized.”
Alyssa, who is taking the course for Gateway credit, said she found the essay a little “tedious.”
“I was doing this freshman year,” said Maria of the coursework.
Unlike with the poetry last semester, which was ripe for close analysis, with this essay, Alyssa said, “There’s nothing to talk about.”
Donahue’s challenge was to help students find something to talk about as the entered a “fishbowl”-style conversation, where one circle of students sits in the middle of the class and has a discussion while the others listen in from the perimeter.
Donahue’s task turned out not to be too hard: Once they got going, the students had lots to say.
Students began by discussing the author’s main argument, that TV shows don’t have enough macho male characters. Specifically, the author called for cartoons to have characters such as a man who can fix a car, and someone like four-star U.S. Army General David Petraeus.
“It sounded like he wanted to see violence,” to “see men in a certain role,” said student Evangelina Briones.
Why would you need a man like Petraeus in a cartoon? Donahue asked.
Manny Ford said you don’t. In Peanuts, for example, “there was no adult figure,” yet the show still taught “moral lessons” in every episode.
Students then debated whether students are absorbing moral lessons, or educational lessons, when they watch cartoons.
There are some things kids can’t learn from cartoons, offered Angelo DelVecchio: “If you want kids to be playing outside,” you “can’t teach them that” on TV.
Donahue ended the conversation after 15 minutes and sent his students writing—another requirement of the Gateway-aligned class. Students had to write a “reaction paper” to the essay.
Donahue was asked about students’ critique that the texts are not challenging enough.
“I’m glad” they want the rigor, he said.
He said he is upholding the same routines—the fishbowl discussion, journal-writing during every class—as in his English 4 class. And he’s using the same standards to grade students’ writing. He said he can still challenge students with the syllabus he’s been given. “There’s a way to be rigorous with this material.” He said he plans to supplement the Gateway readings with Ophelia scenes from Shakespeare’s Hamlet—a good jumping-off point for discussions of gender and relationships.
The Gateway course starts with the very basics of writing an essay. Students start with just one paragraph and build on that until they are writing a full essay. Donahue said while his honors students are beyond those basics, the students in his non-honors class, who are also taking the same refresher course, “could use the structure” and close attention to essay-writing.
Writing argument is “really hard,” he said.
Donahue said the roll-out of the refresher English classes has been “awkward,” because “it makes it look like a punishment when it’s not. It’s actually an opportunity” to brush up on key skills before college.
Manny (pictured), the most vocal participant in the class discussion, said he’s enjoying the course. He found out in January that he had to switch his math and English classes this spring so that he can get into Gateway this fall.
“It was a lot of trouble at first” to change his schedule around, he said. He questioned the district’s decision to wait until spring semester to prepare kids for the new law.
“It could have been earlier,” he said. “We have four to five months left of school.”
“It’s pressure to try to pass.”
Kaira Fernandez (pictured at the top of this story), plans to attend Western Connecticut State University next year. She said she is enjoying Donahue’s class even with the last-minute change of syllabus.
“You’re always working,” she said, “so the time just goes by.”