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Sunday, Aug. 2, 2009 | The neat rows of desks have disappeared from Carol Ann Vorce’s classroom at Montgomery Middle School, replaced with clusters where students can talk. Textbooks sat idle on the shelf and worksheets were nowhere to be seen on a recent Thursday.
The changes are all a part of a different way Vorce is doing things this year. Instead of beginning with the textbook that day, she asked the preteens in her Otay Mesa classroom to draw a monster — anything but a familiar monster from the cartoons they all know — and to then describe it in writing with as much detail as they could muster. In one corner of the room, 7th grader Marcos Melendrez made a quick sketch, then carefully wrote a paragraph about a “big scary monster” with “two hairy eyes.”
Lessons like this are a new brand of classwork for Vorce and her students, spurred on by a pilot program across Sweetwater Union High School District aimed at teaching children to think critically about texts and the way they are written, instead of to just understand and love literature. It’s called the rhetorical approach, and it requires students to analyze arguments and craft their own to persuade others — the types of skills the students will need in college, the workplace and as citizens.
Melendrez turned back to his paper, scrutinizing the words. The classmates would later swap their writings with each other, and each would try to recreate the other’s monster based only on the written descriptions. “It’s kind of difficult to explain the monster,” he told a visitor. “You have to add what you think about it — what you see.”
Professors at nearby universities who back the program say it will create college students who are better at dissecting and debunking claims, rather than simply talking or writing about how a novel makes them feel. It means using more nonfiction and fewer novels, more student debates and fewer lectures. English classes have traditionally focused on literature and its themes; the rhetorical approach is meant to prepare teens for taking apart a newspaper editorial or deconstructing the prose of Darwin or Marx. While it focuses more heavily on nonfiction, it can also be used for fiction.
“If I were teaching a short story I would ask the students, ‘What does this author want you to believe about the world? What argument is he or she making? How does the story make that case?’” said Glen McClish, who oversees the department of rhetoric and writing studies at San Diego State University and helped Sweetwater staffers design the new curriculum.
For example, Vorce explained that the monster drawings and descriptions were meant to make students think about how they chose words and how other people would interpret them. If their explanations were vague, their classmates wouldn’t be able to redraw the same monster. While it is neither a new lesson among teachers nor a classic exercise in rhetoric — McClish had never heard of it — Vorce said it fit into the new philosophy because it was driven by students and forced them to think carefully about word choice. It is a first step toward getting them to dissect the choices that other writers have made and why.
Shifting to English classes that more closely match the demands of college is also meant to curb the number of Sweetwater graduates who need to take remedial classes once they move on to Southwestern College or San Diego State. Only 12 percent of high school juniors at Sweetwater were ready for college English, according to a 2008 placement exam administered by the California State University system. It is a major challenge for the middle and high school district that spans from National City to San Ysidro.
“They can decode words fairly well. They know what the words are. But they don’t know how the writer intended to use those words to affect the reader,” said Randy Beach, chairman of the English department at Southwestern College. That has scary implications for democracy, Beach added. “There’s a sea of misinformation and biased information that students are just accepting as fact, without a critical filter.”
Though the new approach to teaching English been in the works for more than two years, it is also part of a broader set of reforms meant to make Sweetwater classes more rigorous in the wake of a worrisome study by the San Diego County Office of Education, released this spring after a team of consultants visited classrooms and surveyed teachers and principals.
The study found that students were compliant, often listening quietly, but not necessarily engaged in their classes. Most classes were “teacher centered” with adults giving information while students sat passively. Teachers were missing chances to deepen discussions or ask tougher questions. They sometimes allowed students to answer with a single word or instructed them to copy notes from the board word for word. Classes were often eerily quiet, particularly in classes for children learning English.
Superintendent Jesus Gandara, who has been criticized by the school board for focusing too heavily on issues outside the classroom, called the study “a wake-up call” to make sure all classrooms are equally challenging. Revamping English classes is just one of several strategies that Sweetwater is now deploying to combat the problem, from culling classes that don’t meet state standards to pushing algebra to creating a common set of standards for principals to use when visiting classes.
“We’re trying to get away from the worksheet mentality,” Vorce said.
Making that switch is not easy. It means getting into the heart of what teachers do and how they do it, and some have done it the old way for years. It means relinquishing total control of the classroom to allow back-and-forth between kids.
And it sometimes means letting go of fiction, often beloved by the people who become English teachers, in favor of analyzing arguments and information. Vorce paged through the textbook that she didn’t pick up for her lesson, pointing out a fictional piece about a forgetful boy — “cute little story, but it doesn’t mean a lot” — that wouldn’t fit the rhetorical model.
Curriculum Director Maria Castilleja said that to smooth the transition, Sweetwater opted to pay teachers in the pilot to attend trainings on the rhetorical approach, how to evaluate students using it and even how to help children effectively annotate texts they were reading. Some of the trainings have lasted for as long as four hours. Teachers meet regularly to discuss how the new methods are working.
“It is a big change,” Castilleja said. “We’re going from a system in which we adopted a textbook and you follow the red line (in the book) — everything highlighted in red is the minimum you should do. The expectation at that time was, you use the book. That doesn’t require a lot of planning.”
Laura Luchau is trying to transform her own class at Granger Junior High School, where all English classes are trying the new methods, one lesson at a time. Her students quietly sketched out imaginary houses before Luchau asked them to explain the structures in place in the drawing, analyzing the pictures the same way she hopes they will someday analyze a complex essay by labeling its parts and their purposes. It isn’t a Socratic seminar yet — a pointed sign near the pencil sharpener reads “LISTEN and SILENT are spelled with the same letters” — but Luchau is gradually easing them into a new system.
“What words would you use to describe the structure of this room?” Luchau asked, gesturing around her own classroom on the National City campus.
“Sturdy?” one child offered.
“It’s got walls,” another student said. Other students giggled.
Luchau nodded. “No, he’s right. Walls are part of structure.”
Only a few days into the school year, teachers are still testing out the new methods, and the transformation is far from done. Thirteen different schools with roughly 100 participating teachers are dipping their toes in the new teaching method, including both middle schools and high schools.
While the hope is that the pilot program will lead to a more consistent, more rigorous way of teaching English, individual schools are still taking different approaches to the rhetorical method, Luchau said, from annotating pictures to setting up debates. Teachers are still learning what exactly it should look like.
“Certainly it’s not perfect,” Beach said. “But they have a tall order in doing it throughout an entire system as big as Sweetwater.”