The Right to Write

At the beginning of every term, students crowd into Morse to take math bypass exams, hoping to skip a term or two in the math sequence and finish their requirement that much sooner. Bulfinch, however, remains conspicuously empty. At Andover, there are limited or no options for students who excel in English to pursue their literary passions outside of the standard curriculum until Senior year. To equally recognize the talents of the Academy’s “math whizzes” and its young writers, Andover’s current curriculum needs to be reevaluated, giving students who are inclined toward the humanities the ability to opt out of the standard English sequence early and develop their talents in more advanced courses. Currently, four-year Phillips Academ students are required to take English 100 during their freshman year, which, according to department head Jonathan Stableford, is a course that primarily focuses on literary analysis, journals, or personal essays, depending on the teacher. Lowers take English 200, of which the fall term is devoted to creative nonfiction and the refining of writing basics such as grammar and vocabulary, while the winter and spring terms are devoted to more literary analysis, this time of fiction and poetry, with an added emphasis on research. English 300, for uppers, emphasizes more advanced literary analysis. This sequence is set, catering to the needs of the slowest student, and those who are capable of mastering the techniques more quickly than their peers are at risk of feeling bored and unmotivated in class. More specified and advanced courses that would better suit the needs of these students, such as Independent Projects or the 40 English electives offered in the 2006-2007 course of study, are reserved for senior year. According to Mr. Stableford, the current sequence is designed to equip students with “an appreciation for literature, a sense of literary form, and an ability to write well about literature.” The goals of the courses should not be questioned; rather, what must be recognized are the varying speeds at which students learn, the interest level of the individual in the subject, and the unfairness of grouping English students together by age instead of ability, as is done in the Math and Science departments. The English department has not completely turned a blind eye to these problems. Many remedial solutions are currently in effect, but none of them are wholly satisfactory. For example, a few uppers are allowed to take senior electives in addition to English 300 every year, but the downsides of this option are many. First, because the student is required to take English 300 concurrently, they often have to put off another required yearlong course until senior year. Second, the addition of another English course will often mean that the student has a six-course load for the entirety of their hardest year at Phillips. Finally, preference in course selection is always given to seniors, so classes can fill up quickly and the uppers who are taking electives are limited in their course choices. So while this option does give young writers the opportunity to participate in more advanced courses, the cost of entering such a program is greater than it should be. In a way, Andover’s advanced writers are penalized for their abilities, unlike their peers who excel in the fields of math and science. Many English teachers are also willing to work with their students outside of class, developing their talents on a one-on-one basis. While this method certainly gives students the individual attention that they need to hone their skills, it again involves a sacrifice of the student’s time and energy that could be put to use in other demanding courses. Some would argue that it’s more difficult to assess ability in the humanities than it is in math or science. However, although it is hard to quantify a student’s writing ability, teachers can look at writing samples, past teacher recommendations, and standardized test scores from the SSAT and the PSAT. Many Phillips students also take the SAT early in order to participate in national gifted and talented programs, such as CTY (Center for Talented Youth), which is run by Johns Hopkins University, and CTD (Center for Talent Development), out of Northwestern University. Looking at these SAT scores would give teachers a good sense of a student’s advanced ability in English by showing how they performed on a test designed for teenagers several years older. The current English curriculum needs to be changed. One possibility would be to still require English 100 for all juniors, in order to get a sense of each student’s ability, and also to create a comfortable learning environment for Phillips’ youngest students. All lowers would then take the fall term of English 200, to introduce them to creative nonfiction, a method that is only sparingly encompassed in English 100. Then, by teacher recommendation, students who have a demonstrated an affinity for English would be allowed to move into a two-term “English 250” course, designed to accelerate students though the remainder of English 200 and the rudiments of English 300. The math department and certain world language divisions (such as Russian and Chinese) offer courses for extremely capable students that cover two years in one; why should the English department be any different? At the conclusion of their lower year, the students who had taken the “English 250” course would be prepared to take electives for the remainder of their Phillips Academy careers, with equal preference in course selection as the seniors and without being required to take English 300. This program would allow students the option to develop their talents and pursue their specific interests in electives, without sacrificing time or their overall academic plan. With the current English curriculum, Andover’s advanced student writers are getting the short end of the stick. Changes need to happen that would enable them to develop their abilities, and encourage other students to recognize their talent and acknowledge the equality of the humanities and the sciences. Hopefully, some students will one day garner the same amount of respect and prestige from their peers for writing a sharp analysis of Hemingway’s For Whom The Bell Tolls as others will for testing into Math 600 as freshmen.