Dear Newton South families,
I am writing to update you on some changes in the end-of-the-year routine in English classes.
We have asked all seniors for the last two years to write what we call a synthesis essay. Each student develops an argument on his or her own, and uses the texts the class has read to support that argument. In order to ensure that seniors are ready for that quite challenging task, we have recast the common writing sections of the freshman, sophomore and junior exams to lead up to the synthesis essay. Freshmen will analyze an unfamiliar text closely, sophomores will compare their analyses of two excerpts from texts they have read, and juniors will choose from among several excerpts of texts they have read to develop an argumentative essay. The hope is that this change will become reflected in the curriculum of each year and lead to a natural progression that allows more students to succeed on their senior papers and to be better prepared for the writing demands beyond high school.
All students in grades 9, 10, and 11 will be writing some version of these assignments in their English classes in the next two weeks (likely during their long English block). Freshmen and sophomores/juniors, however, will be taking different approaches to this end-of-the-year writing.
- All freshmen will write a close analysis of an unfamiliar passage in class next week. Teachers will score this essay according to a common set of criteria, and return it to students by the end of May. At the start of June, students will hand in a portfolio of their work from the school year, which will include a) the close reading essay from May, b) an essay about a book from earlier in the year (students choose which one), c) a piece of either personal or creative writing (again, students choose) and d) a short self-assessment of the student’s writing. Teachers will score this portfolio based on a common set of criteria, and this grade will count as the writing portion of the student’s final exam. (The final exam in June will have some multiple choice questions, but will not contain any extended writing.) The hope here is to honor a wider array of student work and not have one on-demand essay stand as the only way a student’s writing is graded on the final. We recognize that there is a potential downside in that students will be writing an essay that “counts” earlier in the year than they otherwise would have, but we want to emphasize that this essay is just one part of a portfolio that will include three other examples of the student’s writing, and all of that writing itself will comprise just one section of the student’s final exam grade. (We also hope the final exam in June is somewhat less stressful, as it will be much shorter.) The Frequently Asked Questions sheet (PDF) for freshmen that we developed earlier in the year might help answer additional questions.
- Sophomores and juniors will write their essays at some point in the next two weeks (AP exams make scheduling somewhat more problematic for the older students). Teachers will score the essays according to commonly agreed upon criteria, and return them to students. The essay itselt will not count, however, as either part of the exam or fourth term. It will merely serve as formative feedback for the essay that students will write on the final exam in June. So sophomores and juniors will have writing as part of their June exams, and it will look much like the writing they did in May. The hope here is that as many students as possible will be given a chance to succeed on the final exam.
We look at both of the above approaches as pilots. We will use feedback and student results to decide if all three grades should adopt one or the other method, or if we should continue with different grades using different methods.
We’re working hard to build a more coherent and rigorous curriculum for all students, and we are confident that these changes will lead us closer to that goal. Please don’t hesitate to contact me if you have any questions.
English department chair
Student publications coordinator