High school English course changes approved

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Oconto Falls proposals include training writing coaches, expanding senior electives

Warren Bluhm, wbluhm@newmedia-wi.com

The Oconto Falls School Board has approved changes to the district’s language arts program designed to improve student writing and expand senior-year course offerings.

Oconto Falls High School principal Jake Beschta reviewed the English department’s proposals with the board during its regular monthly meeting March 11.

Over the past five years, data from ACT scores showed that Oconto Falls seniors’ proficiency in language arts dropped considerably to hover around the state average mark. Five years ago, those scores were about 15 percent above the state average, Beschta said. Writing skills and vocabulary were special areas of concern.

“So the English department as a group asked: What are we currently doing, and how can we help that grow?” he said.

The solutions involve a new writing center and more 12th-grade class options.

Traditionally, the English curriculum has been centered toward preparing students for a four-year college track, Beschta said.

“When students get to English 12, their pathways are drastically different, whether that be a four-year program, tech school, trade, and we need to find ways to maintain rigor but also meet the needs of individual students,” he said.

The writing center is to be a student-driven program with students going through training to provide peer coaching in all kinds of writing projects.

“Maybe it’s an essay in U.S. history; maybe it’s creating some type of logical argument in mathematics that’s supported by data. Maybe it’s writing a speech specifically for a class,” Beschta said. “It’s supporting students in that writing.”

The writing coaches won’t just be the top students but volunteers a passion for writing and helping others write effectively, he said.

Instead of a one-size-fits-all English 12 curriculum, seniors will choose among four electives: Practical English and Communications; Reading and Writing Through Genre and Film; Survey of Theater, which Beschta described as “a combination of three course offerings we already have, looking more philosophically and providing expanded experience”; and Journalism and Mass Media.

“We want to provide, while still offering AP (advanced placement), multiple offerings that meet the needs of all students,” Beschta said.

The journalism and media course is likely to have “a community piece with this, whether it’s profiling significant people or significant things that are happening in the district, announcements, informational videos that are broadcast,” he said. “They’re finding different ways through social media, creating our own YouTube channel as a high school to get more information out to the community and inform the community about the many wonderful things our staff and students are doing.”

The English teachers have been working extraordinarily hard on the proposal, Beschta said — a comment echoed by board member Ken Harter, who met with the department for an in-depth review with fellow board curriculum committee member Lisa Peitersen earlier in the day.

“It’s obvious that they’re passionate about it,” Harter said. “They’ve given it a lot of thought.”

Jan Stranz, board vice president, said she was pleased to hear about the efforts to improve student writing, an expansion of a program launched a couple of years ago to improvement writing instruction at the elementary schools.

“Employers have been begging students to be better in these areas,” Stranz said.

“They’re excited with your approval to hit the ground running with this,” Beschta said.

The board approved the changes on a unanimous vote.