Advanced Placement Board Approves New Literature Curriculum Developed at Saint Andrew’s
You might say English Department Chair Hillary Feerick-Hillenbrand has a second role at Saint Andrew’s. She serves as an ad hoc sociological researcher determined to cure….Senioritis.
Three years ago, she led a brainstorming session with her colleagues determined to find ways to help students who were struggling to maintain interest in the English 12 and English 12 Advanced Placement Literature and Composition courses based on a chronological study of British Literature. It’s pretty typical for seniors to be more focused on entering college, and the books they were assigned, although classics, weren’t compelling enough to keep them engaged and motivated.
“It was difficult for both the students and the teachers,” Ms. Feerick-Hillenbrand said. “Aside from sustaining their interest, we wanted effective ways to implement our concept-based learning approach.”
Her answer to the challenge has now captured the attention and interest of teachers and schools nationwide. Conjuring up ways to pique students’ interest, Ms. Feerick-Hillenbrand and her staff developed an innovative way to teach students the skills they need by creating what they call a Dream Course. Teachers invent courses that they would love to teach and poll students during junior year to identify courses of study relevant to the students’ own interests. That process creates a constantly-changing list of elective options that allows students to follow their passions. All grade 12 and AP Literature classes follow a college model and are semester based. This formula allows students and teachers to switch topics mid-stream, adding a sense of exhilaration to the second half of the school year just as Senioritis tries to take hold.
The interest from other schools across the country started after Ms. Feerick-Hillenbrand submitted her idea of Dream Courses to AP’s College Board. A grade 12 literature elective was something new for the Board, but they saw the clear educational value and approved the Dream Course concept upon the first submission. When she presented the concept at the National AP Conference in Washington DC this past summer, in a session entitled, “Energize Your AP Lit Course with Elective-Based Curriculum,” the reception among other teachers and college board officials was amazing.
“This was a groundbreaking idea to many,” added Ms. Feerick-Hillenbrand. “Most people assume the AP English curriculum is restrictive, but it’s not. It’s skills-based, and our model fit their guidelines. This was a breakthrough for us as a school.”
It’s a breakthrough for both students and teachers, stated AP Literature teacher and Interim Head of Upper School, Dr. Matt Laliberte. “Students like to read when they have good books in their hands. They put more time into the class, they find greater satisfaction in class, and they’re more eager to participate in conversations. That could be about their own book or a book a fellow classmate is reading.”
The elective also allows students to select texts that may have a direct impact on their personal lives. Dr. Laliberte’s class focuses on literature about war and conflict, and many of his students have family members who’ve served in the military, or are boarding students who’ve come from countries that have experienced internal strife. These are experiences that most American students might have never seen, so it prompts fascinating and fruitful conversations. “That personal connection can make all the difference. It makes the texts relevant to their own reality and life experiences,” Dr. Laliberte said.
Aside from Dr. Laliberte’s class Literature of War and Conflict, other dream course concepts this fall include: Navigating the Waves of the Wondrous World of Science Fiction, Existential Impulses: The Search for Purpose in Strange Places, Modernist Poetry, “The Stranger in the Village” and Other Outsiders, Vampires, Severed Hands, and Ghosts that Don’t Know They’re Dead: The Irish Gothic Seminar, and Literature of Immigration.
Competing with Devices
It’s no surprise that Americans young and old are struggling with long-form reading. The introduction of smartphones and tablets has led to a competition of sorts with traditional reading material. “Books now have to compete for attention with online media that is visually immersive and immediate,” said Dr. Laliberte. “Giving students the choice of texts will certainly make them more likely to put down the device and pick up a book.”
Senior Emma Swill is one of Dr. Laliberte’s students in a literature class focusing on the subject of war and conflict. She loves the idea of having an elective. “I think it’s a great idea,” she said. “With AP Literature it’s more about application and analyzing, so it’s not as important to select a certain type of literature.”
Emma switched to Saint Andrew’s in grade 9 from another school. She said that as she matured as a student, she realized her previous school wasn’t providing the challenges she needed. “Saint Andrew’s gives me the opportunities to explore my interests,” she said. “I can certainly see the contrast at Saint Andrew’s versus my previous school.”
Power of Choice
The job of the teacher is, as it has always been, to make learning compelling. The Dream Course concept rises to the occasion because it infuses choice and passion into the grade 12 curriculum. It takes learning from simply being about discrete knowledge and facts and elevates it by helping students focus on life's big ideas, which are applicable to many real-world situations.
“The Dream Course concept capitalizes on the power of choice,” stated Ms. Feerick-Hillenbrand. “It promotes context, relevance, and intertextuality. Best of all, it keeps teachers and students alike engaged and focused, rescuing both groups from the dreaded Senioritis.”