In the swirl of comment and controversy about the Common Core curriculum, one fact stands out: students will read more non-fiction and, necessarily, less fiction in their middle and high school English classes.
By Peter Jovanovich
In the swirl of comment and controversy about the Common Core curriculum, one fact stands out: students will read more non-fiction and, necessarily, less fiction in their middle and high school English classes. And, that is the path that the Rye City School District is taking.
We asked Christen Klewicki, English Language Arts Coordinator Grades 6-12 (effectively the Chair of the English Department), and Dr. Betty Ann Wyks, Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum and Instruction, to explain this shift.
“It’s about teaching students to write excellently,” says Ms. Klewicki, a graduate of University of Michigan and Columbia Teachers College with five years of service to Teach for America. — with emphasis on the word excellently. “Our students will be called upon, in college and after, to write skillfully about all sorts of texts,” she elaborated. “And some of the techniques of analysis and rhetoric are best taught with an essay, an opinion piece, or even multi-media.”
What is excellent writing? Over the last few decades, there have been many attempts by education reformers to find new ways of teaching writing. There was the “just express yourself” period, where the emphasis was on allowing children to write about whatever they wanted to, without letting rules of grammar, spelling, and punctuation get in the way of self-expression. Predictably, that led to a generation of adults who can’t spell, conjugate, or punctuate. (Rye High is definitely not of that school.) As Dr. Wycks asserts, Rye students learn the basics of composition.
Rather, there is something refreshingly “ancient” about Rye High’s new eleventh grade curriculum. As Ms. Klewicki outlined: “We teach students the three categories of writing persuasively: Logos, Ethos, and Pathos. Logos is about writing logically; Ethos refers to establishing credibility through, for example, the use of authoritative sources; and Pathos means appealing to the reader’s emotions, sympathies, and empathies.”
Sound familiar? For those a little rusty on their ancient Greek authors, these are the categories of persuasion outlined in Aristotle’s “On Rhetoric.” Indeed, rhetoric, the art of writing effectively and persuasively, is at the center of writing instruction at Rye. What does that mean in practice?
This fall, eleventh graders have been reading Joseph Conrad’s “The Heart of Darkness,” the classic novella that plumbs the depth of human depravity as seen in colonial Belgian Congo. What’s new is that students also read an essay on the implicit racism within the Conrad narrative, and are then asked to critically appraise the arguments concerning Conrad’s point of view and analyze the novella through different perspectives.
In sum, the new writing curriculum at Rye High is asking students to think deeply and to write persuasively about fiction and its connections to the world we see. As Klewicki concludes with some fervor: “I want our students to value writing. It takes time and energy, but it’s worthwhile – it’s a path to learning.”