Senior's English teachers try to assist weaker writers

Dear Chronicle Editors:

I am writing to respond to an article entitled “Administration Analyzes ‘Discrepancies’ over grading in new senior non-AP English Classes,” written by Adam Sieff ’07 and published in the last edition of The Chronicle.  As a nine-year veteran Harvard-Westlake English Instructor who teaches both AP and non-AP senior courses, I feel I am in a unique position to comment on the misleading impression Sieff’s article has created of our program.

Sieff reports that the complaints of “several seniors” about their early grades in English led to a full-scale investigation of the department by the administration.  His article asserts that there were significant variances in the grade averages of the teachers within the Barriers and Bridges team and implies that the standards to which these seniors have been held accountable are not commensurate with the non-AP status of the course. Indirectly suggested by the piece is the idea that English teachers of both groups have neither been sensitive to the needs of senior students applying early decision nor aware of the objective purpose of their grades.

Let me respond to these charges, in order.  First, while inquiries were made, there was no full scale investigation into the English Department’s practices.  Why?  Because there were no significant variances in the grades given by the teachers on the team.  As Department Chair Larry Weber stressed to Sieff, your English faculty makes equity in evaluation a regular and central part of our work in teams. We achieve this goal not only by comparing our quarter grades each quarter, but more importantly by grading essays in common and establishing clear evaluative criteria for each course and assignment.

The other primary issue raised by the article has to do with the expectations we have of students in the non-AP course.  Here are the facts:  first, any English course, AP or non-AP, will require competent writing. At minimum, this means the expectation that essays articulate a clear thesis statement, effective topic sentences, a reasonable analysis of evidence and a progression of ideas; we also insist that the writing be clear and readable and not compromised by significant grammatical or mechanical errors.  However, the content of the AP class is more sophisticated and challenging.  The AP reading list—which includes, in the first semester, “The Iliad” and “Hamlet” and “Pride and Prejudice”—is significantly more difficult than that of the regular course, which includes two works of twentieth century fiction and one novel, “Wuthering Heights”, that historically has been taught in sophomore year. 

While literary analysis is required in both courses, those of us teaching AP require significantly more careful consideration of the ways in which a writer conveys meaning through stylistic devices; we have also asked our students to write more frequently and on more sophisticated prompts than those in the other class. 

To help develop our less able writers in the non-AP sections, we added significant units of writing instruction in which we reviewed such basic concepts as annotation, claim development, essay structure, quotation integration and analysis.

To help accommodate struggling seniors, many of whom we knew were applying early decision, we let their better essay of the first quarter count twice, dropped the lowest quiz grade, counted quizzes and class participation nearly as much as the papers themselves and evaluated essays using the standards consistent with those printed in the sophomore grading rubric.  The vast majority of seniors in this class received a grade of B- or better. I wish to state unequivocally that our objective is not to “ding” you.  Our job is to teach you how to write competently and thus prepare you for the challenging universities which you aim to attend. 

Finally, let me assure the student body, and particularly the seniors, that all of us in the English Department care deeply about you as scholars and as human beings.  Did “several seniors” feel disheartened about their grades?  Yes.  Do we sympathize with the frustrations of students who have struggled to master basic organizational and analytical skills and do we attempt—through countless hours of supplementing lesson plans and commenting on essays and conferencing in our department—to remediate them?  Yes.  Do those students’ struggles mean our senior program is unfair?  I will leave it to the intelligent and capable minds of our students to decide.

— Lisa Rado, English teacher

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