New Curriculum Becomes A SpringBoard For Teacher Criticism
TAMPA - A classic education it's not. Hillsborough County schools' yearlong studies of world, American and British literature in high schools are history. Themes have replaced the traditional approach to language arts. The theme in 10th grade is "Culture." In place of world literature, students tackle a mixture of topics ranging from Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet" and Soviet Nobel literature prize-winner Alexander Solzhenitsyn's writings to "Cinderella" and clips from "I Love Lucy.""The American Dream" replaces 11th-grade American literature, with a span of subjects from Arthur Miller's play about witchcraft, "The Crucible," to clips from the movie "Monty Python and the Holy Grail." Seniors contemplate "How Perception Changes Reality" instead of British literature. Media reports of the 1991 Waco massacre, the contemporary novel "My Sister's Keeper," and clips from "Forrest Gump" may replace "Beowulf" and the poetry of Yeats and Shelley. It's all part of this school year's districtwide switch to a new math and language arts curriculum in middle and high schools called SpringBoard. Three-quarters of the way through the school year, math teachers say they see little change, while some high school English teachers are concerned. "The meat's not there," said Holly Bentley, a national board-certified English teacher at Brandon High School. She teaches sophomore and junior honors English. "There is no grammar. There is no vocabulary." "Some of the activities are wonderful," Bentley said, describing students depicting characters at a Puritan tea party. Teachers have long done similar hands-on lessons, she said, calling SpringBoard mostly "old concepts in new packaging." Some teachers are praising the new approach. Sylvia Ellison, also an English teacher at Brandon High, was happy to replace the chronological teaching of American literature for her 11th-graders with "'The American Dream" theme. Ellison teaches three 11th-grade language arts classes that combine students with disabilities in classes with other students. Two-thirds of her students failed the English portions of the 10th-grade Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, she said, but they are taking to SpringBoard. "They like the variety," Ellison said. "I love it." Her class took about seven weeks to cover Jon Krakauer's biography, "Into the Wild," about a 24-year-old man's adventures and death in the Alaska wilderness. "We listened to the whole book on iTunes," Ellison said. "Last year, they read 'The Great Gatsby.' I think they got more out of this one." Students related to the adventurer's relationship with his parents, she said, and there were "all sorts of life lessons." Hesitation From The Start When the Hillsborough County School District tried SpringBoard at four of its 25 high schools last year, teachers balked at giving up favorite lessons and making drastic changes with little training. There was more angst when the district suddenly announced a districtwide rollout for this school year as it jumped at the chance for $30 million in federal grants to pay for the program over five years. SpringBoard was created by the College Board, the company known for the SAT test and Advanced Placement courses and tests. The program uses engaging, fun activities to improve critical thinking skills and promises to prepare more students for Advanced Placement and college-level classes. Whether it will do that is yet to be seen, although the district points to a preliminary report based on a three-year study that shows significant benefit in increasing student achievement, especially in reading. But some teachers say SpringBoard is no better - and may be worse - in preparing students for college than the district's previous curriculum. Honors students are a special concern. "All classical literature is gone," said Lee Rich, a Sickles High School language arts teacher in her 24th year. "They're going to go to college with no classical literature and limited poetry instruction." Work Varies Greatly From AP Many students headed for college are taking SpringBoard classes, including honors level. Their course work is far different than that of Advanced Placement college-level classes in high school that have their own national curriculum and tests. SpringBoard reading includes many excerpts in a workbook. Much of the writing, music and film or video clips are contemporary. "They're getting piecemeal instruction," Rich said, a concern shared by other English teachers. "You're catering to their impatience ... I see problems in the future, because it lacks challenge." Some students agree. "It's not consistent," said Andrea Jenkins, who took SpringBoard honors English the first half of this school year before graduating in December from Alonso High. She is now a student at Hillsborough Community College. "There were some parts that were challenging and some that were very remedial. It was really strange," Jenkins said. "We read 'Ulysses.' Then, we read a poem in the SpringBoard book, 'My Name,' that I read the first time in fifth or sixth grade." Teachers who don't like the approach of using multiple genres within a theme are accustomed to teaching subjects and lessons they love, said Alice Wukovich, a national board-certified teacher and SpringBoard language arts coordinator in Hillsborough. Wuckovich agrees the change is dramatic, particularly in 12th-grade English. "Everyone nationwide does British literature in senior English," Wuckovich said. "That's why people are upset." The 10th-grade unit on "Cinderella" baffles a number of teachers. "We're looking at how different cultures have written up the Cinderella story - we compare and contrast," said Dale Rice, an English teacher at Plant City High, one of the four high schools that used SpringBoard last year. Rice chose to show the movie "Ever After" with Drew Barrymore - a modern version of the "Cinderella" story - and contrast it with clips from the Disney version that some teachers showed. Last year, Rice said, his students instead read "A Separate Peace," a coming-of-age novel by John Knowles: "I liked the old curriculum better." Classics Are Missing Some teachers are worried that students will lose their last chance to read classics, said Liz Brown, Hillsborough's high school language arts supervisor. But for college, she argues, students also need the study skills and strategies for critical thinking they get from SpringBoard to learn to analyze work on their own. Even non-college-bound students need those skills in real-world jobs or for technical training, Brown said. Students also need to "look deeper into what they're reading and analyze it for FCAT," she said. Wuckovich added, "It's about being able to critically read. If you can read, you can read the classics on your own." Input from teachers and reducing the number of units mean no "Cinderella" or Waco units next year, Wuckovich said. In addition, grammar and "academic vocabulary" are being added, she said, as is more writing. "Everything we've heard is in the revisions," she promised. SpringBoard is beefing up its curriculum, and Hillsborough has influenced that, Wuckovich said, because "we are the largest consumer." Jamie Roberts' senior honors English class at Sickles High, studying the "Othello" unit in January, shows the SpringBoard difference. Rather than requiring each student to read, memorize, write essays, take tests, research Shakespeare's life or summarize a movie, students work in groups, taking turns "teaching the class." "Most of us think it's busy work, but it does get our minds working, and we do get to think about the work we do with the book," said Marc Dejute, a student in that class. Roberts agrees teachers must add to the workbook lessons. "I think that the curriculum is a little too simplistic - that's why we do so much more on our own," Roberts said. Sickles senior English teachers added six novels to the SpringBoard curriculum - including two to be read the summer before school started. Roberts shares the concern that students will not have been exposed to English poetry they need to know for college, but called the sound technology and analysis of film they are learning "wonderful." In math classes, just four SpringBoard lessons are required each year. Among them is an Algebra I SpringBoard lesson that starts with students arranging baby marshmallows and spaghetti on blue paper to discover different ways to multiply binomials. Seventh- and eighth-graders in Jennifer Apgar's Algebra I honors class at Ferrell Middle Magnet School in Tampa couldn't wait to dig into their bags of marshmallows in January and were relieved to find extras for eating. The marshmallows represent office computers; spaghetti separates sections of the office. "I'm kinesthetic - I like to use my hands," said Giana Moore, 12. She said she prefers such hands-on activities to doing math problems on the computer. The seven computers lining one wall in her class are rarely used, she said. Similar lessons have long been used by math teachers to bring the subject to life, but algebra, calculus and physics still require structured formulas and computations that keep the subject on a traditional course, math teachers said. The content of geometry instruction has not changed in 2,000 years or more, said Virginia Roebuck, an East Bay High and national board-certified math teacher in her 37th year of teaching. She was part of the district's curriculum-writing team that worked on selecting SpringBoard lessons. "I've always believed in teaching this way," said Roebuck, whose school also was part of last year's pilot program. "I don't leave anything out."
Reporter Marilyn Brown can be reached at (813) 259-8069.