Monday, November 5, 2012

Election Special: Presidential Prep Schools (Part II: English Department Goals)

I have suggested that what comes naturally to us as teachers may not always be the best practice, and I often think that teachers can learn a lot from looking beyond our own classrooms: from looking at the way our literature portrays reading; from looking at homeschooling; from looking at good educational research; and from looking at medicine and doctors (and the health care field more generally).

Another place we should look is at schools that might be different from our own.  Leafstrewn High is a public school--a relatively privileged one (our community has, I think, the most graduate degrees per person of any in the United States), but still a public school.  Anybody who can get an apartment in the town, we enroll.  In this we are distinctly different from private schools, which can select, filter, exclude, hand-pick, etc.  So I thought I'd see if private school English departments speak about their practices in the same way we do--or the same way public schools that serve less privileged students do.  Because it's election season, and because our two candidates both went, as do their children and most of the other super-elite in this country, to private school, I looked up the English department web pages for the two presidential prep schools, the Punahou Academy and the Cranbrook School. 

Interestingly, what I found was in many ways similar to what Leafstrewn's English Department says and does.  The mission statements at these elite private schools, however, go far beyond the skills and standards-based philosophy that is in effect at many schools serving less privileged student populations (1). Whereas schools for the less privileged often describe a narrow view of reading, describing skill development and little else, schools to which the elite send their children seem to consider reading quite broadly, mentioning skill development but quickly moving on to morals, imagination, ethics, spirituality and passion.

The mission statement of our English Department
Several years ago, the Leafstrewn English department took a month or so and wrote a mission statement.  Here it is:

We teach all students to think critically and creatively, to read carefully, and to write well.  In our classes we foster relationships, engagement, independence and confidence.

That's a pretty good statement.  I like the attention to things that are not English-specific: thinking, relationships, engagement, independent, confidence.  I could wish that the reading and writing were more clearly tied to these aims, but as a short statement, it's good enough for me.  The Presidential prep school English Departments have websites with much longer statements, statements that draw out the connections more clearly.

Cranbrook: Reading as a "lifelong habit" that "transforms the individual"
The Cranbrook School, Mitt Romney's alma mater, seems to be fairly traditional.  Though it has progressed beyond the days in which gay students were baited and bullied and given impromptu tonsures, it still, even in its English Department, "remains committed to gender segregation."  Like Leafstrewn, it has core texts and doesn't offer elective English courses until Senior year.  It also, however, unlike many public schools, is willing to openly state goals that go beyond mere academic skills.

Cranbrook does talk about explicit instruction in vocabulary, grammar, and reading "rigorous training" in written expression, but it also talks about how its faculty will share their "passion" for literature. Cranbrook's English faculty "believe that the study of literature is a life-long habit"; they also believe that "reading transforms individuals beyond the development of academic competency," helping them "gain the capacity to take reasoned positions on complex questions and develop an appreciation of other cultures" and thus become "better citizens."

Punahou: Reading as a spiritual and ethical pursuit
The Punahou Academy as a whole is interested in more than just academics (and does not see that interest as limiting student freedom); the Punahou English department seems to be at the center of this endeavor.  As the course catalog explains: "In order to educate the heart as well as the mind, Punahou students are asked to explore their spirituality, examine their ethical systems, and develop their roles in communities." To fulfill this requirement students must take a course in which these issues are directly addressed; among the regular offerings with a Spiritual, Ethical and Community Responsibility (SECR) credit are only two Social Studies courses, but nine English courses.

The Punahou English Department's statement of its own goals (1) is also remarkable, saying nothing about reading fluently, or with comprehension, or with proficiency.  No, Punahou has something much more ambitious in mind: "The goal of the Academy English Department is to teach students to read compassionately, think exactingly, write clearly and gracefully, and act with the compassion, exactitude, clarity and grace they derive from their engagement with the English language and with literature."  To read compassionately!  And then to act!  Despite a faint tinge of noblesse oblige (remember "compassionate conservatism"?), these are admirable aims. I am troubled by the fact that both candidates, like so many others in the ruling class, went to fancy private schools that are cut off, even more than places like Leafstrewn, from the masses. Nevertheless, if I had to vote for a candidate based solely on his prep school's English department mission statement, I would have to vote for Obama (despite his continuing war-making, extra-judicial executions and willingness to cut Social Security and Medicare).

What do these goals imply?
I'm interested in these goals in and of themselves--good reading may make us more compassionate, though I wonder if other things are more important!--but I'm also curious about whether having a focus that goes beyond skills (what someone a colleague of mine was reading called "authentic" reading and writing) might actually improve skills more than a set of aims that remained focused primarily on skills.  Some research suggests that this is so, and it would make sense.  That also seems to be our thinking at Leafstrewn; I hope we keep it that way.



I looked at the websites of twenty or so high schools across the country that serve less privileged students.  At most of these high schools the websites were terrible, and even at those that did have a substantial web presence, there was often no information about academics at all.  Some promised information and then didn’t give it; the high school my mom and several of my grandparents attended, in Southern Ohio, had a page on its website entitled “Curriculum”, but this “Curriculum” page showed only the Bell Schedule and the grade scale (A: 93-100; B: 86-92; etc.).  At most of the high schools that did describe their curriculum or mission, the English department statements put a great emphasis on skills, saying nothing about passion, imagination, morality, or spirituality.  Here are two representative statements:

KIPP NYC College Prep
The English Department at KIPP NYC College Prep offers a rigorous four-year course of study that fosters critical thinking, reading and analytical skills, technological proficiency and creativity, and sophistication in writing. With the skills gained through this course of study, Students graduating from KIPP NYC College Prep will be prepared for success in the academic and  professional areas  of  their  choice.

Brighton High:
 The Language Arts Department offers a standards-based curriculum which offers a variety of required courses and electives. These courses not only meet the Massachusetts State Frameworks but also prepare students to be successful in English at the college level. The Boston Public Schools curriculum is taught in all grades (9-12). Students in grades 9-12 have over 7 hours of instruction per week in Language Arts.

Students read literature of various genres and are asked to carefully analyze and respond to literature through key questions, as well as developing their fluency through reading independently selected texts. Writing is taught as a process; students are encouraged to revise and rewrite as frequently as necessary, and representative samples of student writing are published on a regular basis. Vocabulary and language skills are integrated throughout the language arts curriculum. 

From the Punahou course catalog, available here:
The goal of the Academy English Department is to teach students to read compassionately, think exactingly, write clearly and gracefully, and act with the compassion, exactitude, clarity and grace they derive from their engagement with the English language and with literature. We believe that offering students a wide variety of curricular challenges with language and literature will increase their capacity for perception, feeling, reason, and tolerance; nourish their imaginations; and inspire their actions.


  1. Aside from the all of jargon about meeting Core Curriculum Standards, Brighton High has its students receiving over 2X the number of hours of "ELA" instruction than students in Leafstrewn. Of course what the students spend time doing during those extra 3.33 hours per week is not addressed in the mission statement or school's website. Maybe they're actually READING? Let's hope so.

    1. Yes, I was curious about those seven hours, too. Maybe they are "developing fluency reading independently selected texts"? On the other hand, that word, "instruction," makes me wonder. Why not call it "class"? My son's hockey team has two hours of "practice" a week; they don't say two hours of "coaching"...

  2. I found this post heartbreaking. I don't believe that prep schools make people more compassionate, better, more humane or happier people (if they did then our ruling class would rule differently!), but I do think it is tragic how the expectations for students and for personal development are so different for kids of different classes--thanks for the post