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BHS English Department
My daughter is a junior at BHS and is wondering whether she should take AP English or Creative Writing in her senior year. She loves writing, but has not had the opportunity for as much writing as she would like and has not received much feedback from her English and history teachers on what she has written. She feels pressure to take more AP classes (so far she's taken AP Bio, Spanish and honors math and won't take AP science next year), but doesn't know about the quality of the AP English teachers and what the class would be like. Basically, her heart says "creative writing" but her practical side is saying "AP English." At this point in time, she is planning to apply to smaller liberal arts colleges/universities. I would appreciate hearing about experiences with AP English and creative writing at Berkeley High. I'd also like to know what people think of the importance of having AP English as opposed to creative writing, in terms of how colleges would view her transcript.
I would like to initiate a discussion about the quality of the English education at BHS. Semester after semester both of my children have had sub-standard instruction that includes pathetically little writing. There are some fabulous teachers which my kids never seemed to get and then a good dose of burned-out, stressed-out ones. (2 semesters out of the cumulative 11 we've been at BHS were with excellent instruction.) In all of last school year one child never received a single piece of written work back with corrections. He did get back all the art work that comprised the majority of the assignments. My other child had the same teacher several years back and never got back any essay with corrections either. In many ways both my children have had a high quality, invaluable experience at BHS with many rewards including the struggles overcome and not overcome. I'd like to see us as parents work together with the school to raise the level of instruction either by raising the standards, getting rid of some of the poor quality teachers, offering an honors class for those particularly gifted or motivated to read and write at a high level (not just the too few sections of12th grade AP, but throughout the years). I wonder, like the parent chagrined about her daughter's low Chem SAT2 score, how many BHS kids score 5's on the AP exam (the top score) and how they do on the Writing SAT2 with such poor preparation. The fact that no AP history is offered, no honors sections of English are offered is tragic for exceptional non-science/math students. (Thank goodness those kids can still take math and science at an appropriately challenging level.) I believe the bar is too low for many and sadly too high for just as many. I'd like to hear from other parents about your experiences and any ideas for change.- Anonymous
My son is in his second year on Berkeley High. He has not yet had a
long paper in any of his classes. In Middle School he had to do
longer (over 10 pages) papers with bibliographies etc. At BHS his
English assignments consist of paragraphs and his history classes
have not had a paper yet, simply vocabulary. His last year's English
teacher told me she hoped he would be able to write more in this
year's English, but no longer writing assignments appear on the
horizon. I would second the writers who suggested that BHS needs
some honors English and history classes. Berkeley seems to not meet
the needs of students who already have some writing and research
I am writing for two reasons. First, I want to thank the dozens of parents and students who wrote to me of their concerns and suggestions about the English instruction at the high school. I am organizing the data and intend to present it to the principal, department chair and the board when I'm done. I'll be asking for some assistance from volunteers as the process continues. I also am considering writing a BSEP proposal to implement some of the fine suggestions I received.
Before I continue, however, I want to have some input from the teachers in the English department. So, Teacher X, since you spoke up, if you're willing I'd welcome your answer to the question I posed to parents: what are y our 5 primary concerns about the English instruction, whether it be regarding curriculum, length of period, class size, low teacher pay, low recognition of dedicated teacher's hard work, poor parent-teacher interface/support, thoughts about the pros and cons of heterogenous or homogeneous classes or anything else AND what suggestions do you have to remedy some of these problems? What's been tried and with what result, what new paths are out there?
I am most interested in opening a dialogue about a situation that has been problematic for years to both teachers and parents/kids and people have whined and complained about with no change. I certainly don't hold the teachers responsible for what I think to be a complex and thorny problem. Easy problems are the ones that get solved easily. This is not easy. I don't want to form hasty conclusions that are just based on the wishes of parents or students in a vacuum. I hope you can help me by letting me know what you think and hopefully acting as a conduit for the opinions and ideas of your peers in the department.
I would like to open this with a ditto of what many have brought up in the Nov 9th newsletter- BHS is in many ways an exciting and dynamic school. We are in our 6th consecutive year and never have I thought I should have sent either of my children elsewhere. Between the two of them we've been involved with the exceptional music program, the rigorous and near college level Latin track, two other foreign languages, the Language Exchange (an ESL Partners program), JV and Varsity sports and LitMag. One child had the good fortune to be in Mr. Teel's model congress, we were introduced to the Amigos program which sent my child twice to work in Latin America doing public health work. Both have learned to be competent math students starting in kindergarten and all the way through the public school system. They learned to write respectable research papers. My older child graduated with 4 AP classes worth of college credit and is thriving at a demanding college. Both formed rich and personal relationships with many of their fine teachers through the years and have forged deep friendships with their peers. Additionally, they learned how to thrive in a system that hands very little over on a silver platter. They've been educated in a mult-cultural/multi-ethnic environment where people of varying skills, disparate economic situations and levels of motivation come together to learn. In other words, the real world. We are very grateful for what Berkeley High has offered.
On the down side, my main area of concern, the place I have tried to create change, have spoken over and over with teachers, students, three different principals, vice-principals, and the department chair is English. It is November and my 10th grader has written one 5 paragraph essay. Period. He has learned a great deal of vocabulary, which I think is crucial, has taken many many quizzes and has read a variety of books but writing is de-emphasized. His next assignment, to accompany the reading of Siddhartha is an art project. I go through the roof with the "art as English" bit. Often, BHS kids get to college and few can write competently. They can make a dandy book cover, though. And a poster, too! Many parents I know have hired writing coaches and tutors through the H.S. years to make up for what's missing. I have edited at least a hundred BHS student's college essays over the years and I am appalled every year at how few of them can express a thought clearly and concisely without massive numbers of clichis and a wealth of poorly constructed ideas that are not well substantiated by cogent arguments.
I think that there is power in numbers. I'd like to see more parents speak up about this, because I know this is a widespread concern. I wrote in an earlier newsletter about my dismay with the English Department in hopes of opening some more extensive discussion. I am aware that not every teacher in any department can be exceptional but unfortunately so many kids are not being served the way things are. My older son had only 3 semesters out of 8, 2 with Mr. Valtz, who is no longer at BHS and one with Mr. Bye, who fortunately is, that I would consider adequate preparation for college. The rest were posters, masks, banners, book covers and an occasional short essay which was never returned with a grade. Oh- there was one term where he wrote a decent essay and the teacher gave him a double A: two essays worth of "A" credit for 1 paper with the comment "reading something like this warms this old English teacher's heart".
Currently my child spends a good part of each English class reading the
next day's assigned reading- per the teacher's instruction. We're not
talking about reading from boredom. That's all that they all do for the
last 20 minutes of some classes. Let's look for something more rigorous
to go on here. I'd like to hear from others and perhaps set up a
meeting with Mr. Hassett, the chair, and Ms. Saunders to talk about how
to raise the bar.
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