Federal Way teachers upset over common English Language Arts curriculum

The Federal Way Public Schools Board of Directors at the Tuesday school board meeting. Courtesy of Bruce Honda

An English teacher for 17 years, Josh Smith looked out to Federal Way Public Schools board members on Tuesday night and shared a memory.

The Todd Beamer High School teacher recalled his favorite moment as an educator – a convergence of paths.

Upon teaching a literature group of seniors one year, he assigned “The Awakening,” by Kate Chopin. The novel took students to the 19th century, a time when women struggled for independence.

“In this group was a student who was white, studious and middle class, as well as an athletic, African-American, homeless student,” Smith said.

“These two young men’s paths rarely crossed on campus, but in my classroom, with that book, they crossed and converged every single day.”

Smith said the two “opposites” were among many others who also crossed paths because of Chopin.

“This was not just a convergence across race, across class, across cliques, it was also a convergence across time and across gender,” he said.

“You see, that is what novels can do. They can build bridges between our students. If we don’t have the opportunity to read novels with our students, there will be fewer bridges being built in Federal Way.”

Smith was among 13 teachers, parents and community members who spoke in favor and against the Federal Way Public Schools’ proposed adoption of a district-wide secondary English Language Arts curriculum.

Although the curriculum hasn’t yet been adopted, a 40-member curriculum committee is meeting throughout March to gather input and eventually make a recommendation sometime this spring.

According to district spokeswoman Kassie Swenson, this committee, comprised of 70 percent teachers, chose two curriculum options to field test from January to March. These did not include novels as central components.

Shawn Simpson, the lead facilitator of secondary curriculum adoption for Federal Way Public Schools, said the district has informed teachers they will buy books based on reading level that will complement classroom themes.

These thematic approaches will then correspond to current best-practice strategies for improving adolescent literacy. Novels will be used in small group settings and one-on-one, skill-based learning.

The accusation that novels will disappear from the English Language Arts curriculum is not true, Simpson said.

“We will be providing more resources in terms of novels and/or realigning our novels to themes so that students are actually reading more books across a grade level versus reading specifically novels selected by teachers,” she said. “And, in fact, the novels were going to align with themes that will be selected in partnership with teachers and the consultant vendors either by Inquiry by Design or the Collections materials.”

Simpson said many of these novels are already in district schools and will be redistributed.

Dave Abrahamson, an English teacher of 24 years who teaches Advanced Placement courses, is not sold on the district’s curriculum options.

He said, of the two curriculum options they were presented with, “one has no novels at all.”

“So, for four years, a student’s going to go into college never studying a novel as a group. They’re going to do independent circles,” Abrahamson said. “But if I send my AP lit kids home, my top students, with independent readings, and we don’t go over it as a class, they’re never going to get the depth they will if we do it together, and there’s gonna be students for four years [who] will never have that.”

Abrahamson said novel study will still be available for students in the Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate and Cambridge programs, which, he says, is a “Brown v. Education” case.

“They have just decided that [general education] students do not deserve the same rich education that these students are [getting],” he said. “So when they’re talking about how curriculum is going to reach all these kids, and then say they’re going to leave it for AP, that’s not closing the achievement gap.”

Superintendent Tammy Campbell said she’s not sure why a handful of teachers, many of whom are from Todd Beamer High School, believe novel study will go away entirely, which is not part of the district’s game plan.

“One of the pilot materials that were selected for pilot by the 40 teachers did not have novels, so I am assuming they fear that there will be no novels,” Campbell said. “I had my curriculum lead email all high school ELA teachers two weeks ago letting them know we would purchase additional novels to augment the curriculum once the selection was made.”

The switch to streamline curriculum was the No. 1 need teachers and support staff told Campbell during her first 100 days on the job.

She visited 39 schools and spoke to certificated and classified staff to understand what was working well and what needed to be changed.

“We’ve got data that shows seven out of 20 kids are meeting [the] standard, so our community is saying to me our schools aren’t good, and you’ve got teachers saying we want more novels,” Campbell said. “That approach, many districts have moved away from that, because when you teach a whole novel, you’re spending a whole year doing that and not getting into the skills to improve it.”

Campbell said data shows even students who are meeting state standards are not growing at the level in which they should.

Rachael Pulu, an English teacher at Decatur High School, recently finished piloting the two curriculum options and said she’s impressed.

“Even though I spent most of this summer and past years laboriously finding and developing my plan to teach novels, this year I decided to take a chance with this pilot and to gauge myself how effective these curricula are,” she said. “As a result, I’ve found that both of these curriculum options are rigorous, engaging and, despite the fact that novels are not a central part, they are amazing.”

Pulu said she doesn’t want to sacrifice novels, but through research of her own, she’s discovered that a whole-class reading of the same novel is not always best for students.

Instead, short pieces of literature for whole-class instruction and several longer pieces of literature for small groups and independent reading improves reading comprehension, she said.

“Each year, hundreds of kids fail to pass our classes, standardized tests and even fail to graduate,” Pulu said, on the verge of tears. “I know that all teachers sincerely want to help change [that], and we need a paradigm shift. If we are truly committed to close the gap for all students, we must have a common vision of success.”

In order to achieve that, Pulu said teachers’ comfort, personal preferences in literature and the “countless hours spent crafting their own curriculum” have to be sacrificed.

The school district will host an open house for teachers and parents to learn more about the secondary English Language Arts curriculum on March 14.

For more information, visit www.fwps.org.