Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Language arts content at JIS

Someone asked me the other day if I thought JIS offered a curriculum rich in content as well as skills.....

Great question -- and one that will be much easier to answer this January when JIS publishes its curriculum on the ParentNet. (This is a really good move on the part of the JIS administration, by the way! I've seen a demonstration of the new curriculum search engine, and it's pretty cool.)

At the moment, my opinions on JIS' curriculum are formed by the information I can gather from the "curriculum binders" in the school libraries, and more importantly, by personal observation. In other words, I look at what my kids bring home from school -- their assignment notebooks, homework, graded tests (although that's another subject altogether), and report cards. That gives me a (imperfect) view of what my children are studying at JIS.

So what do my personal observations tell me about whether JIS offers a content-rich curriculum? Let's look at middle school language arts. In the two years that my daughter's been in the JIS middle school, she's read three novels in language arts class: The Cay, The Giver, and Tomorrow When the War Began.

This year, her 8th-grade language arts class will read no novels. That's right -- zero.

Of course, students are reading something in language arts class. (I'm guessing short stories and poetry.) But only three novels in three years? That can only be described as "content poor."

Next, why does this matter?


At 10:22 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think that a public blog is not the correct place to air some percieved issues.

At 2:01 PM, Blogger Cheryl van Tilburg said...

Dear Anonymous,

If not here, then where? I wish there were open discussions going on about curriculum on campus -- and I'm optimistic that next year we'll see those conversations materialize, thanks to JIS' new online curriculum site and the administration's renewed focus on curriculum.

But in the meantime, my daughter, and all the other children in her class, are living this "perceived issue." My heart breaks, literally, when I have to console her as she panics (after talking with her friends back home) that she's being left behind. I can't just watch that happen and say nothing. We can't afford to lose another year. I hope you understand, and I appreciate your comment.

At 6:53 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I find it interesting that you say "renewed focus on curriculum" in your statement. The curriculum initiative JIS has been working on and led by Mark Jenkins has been in process for THREE YEARS!

Moreover, I was under the impression the PAFs were appropriate venues to raise concerns about curriculum, and I'm sure you've probably raised them with MS administration.

The feedback you are providing is constructive and, I'm sure, is well intended, but I think it would be more constructive to leave out some of the subjective comments that betray your own personal opinions (which are critical in nature) rather than facts.

At 8:08 AM, Blogger Cheryl van Tilburg said...

Dear Anonymous,

Thanks so much for your response!

My comment on the admin's "renewed focus on curriculum" is based on presentations given by our new Head of School at PAF and PTA meetings earlier this year, in which he outlines his four goals for JIS. He specifically lists curriculum as one of those goals, which I believe implies a need for additional attention (or "renewed focus").

Regardless of how you feel about curricular work over the past three years, the reality is what it is. Three books in middle school English? No one could argue that is "best practice."

I agree with you that PAFs are an appropriate venue for addressing curricular issues. (Your comment prompted me to submit this topic to the MS PAF chair this morning -- thanks for the reminder!) And yes, I've worked with the MS administration on English issues (specifically, last year, on the writing program, which is a whole 'nother story). JIS Topics sprung, in part, from my frustration about that experience.

As far as my personal opinions, you're right; I'm guilty of interjecting them into this forum, and I never try to hide it. JIS Topics is a weblog, not a scholarly journal, so I think that's OK. I'm a parent who worries and frets over what I'm seeing with my own child, and that's bound to come out in my writing.

However, I'm also an educator who's studied curriculum and taught English literature and composition in high school. I feel I have a strong foundation from which to form those personal opinions about the English program at JIS (but obviously, others are free to totally disagree!).

It's not my goal to hurt anyone's feelings or disparage JIS -- on the contrary! My husband and I choose to return to Jakarta because we love the school and had a great experience here in the '90s. But at the end of the day, childrens' education trumps all of that. Loving the school doesn't preclude efforts to improve it. As expats, our time here is limited; there's no time to waste.

Thanks again for your thoughtful comment, Anonymous.

At 3:22 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm glad you'll be bringing this up at the PAF. It is the appropriate forum and all administrators should continue to be held accountable to parents for the curriculum delivered by the teachers.

On the other hand (and as you've acknowledged in other postings), curriculum issues take time to implement. It is difficult to expect the administration and teachers to suddenly revise the curriculum because "only three books" are being read in school this year, and none of them happen to be novels.

I have a child in Middle School, and I can tell you the reading log that is required for weekly submission to verify at least 20 (or however many) minutes of at-home reading a day is diligently checked by the teacher. By doing so, the school expects and demands that parents and children to read far more than three books outside of school. Moreover, lists of suggested books also have been provided. As such, my child reads far more than three books a year; it just so happens that only three books are ASSIGNED by the regular school program. Meanwhile, the children are writing and working on many other English-related learnings. Are your daughter's friends in the US required to maintain a reading log that is verified by the teacher?

I also can assure you the program generally works, since one of my kids graduated and was exempted from college-level English because of a high AP English score.

So I don't think it's appropriate to jump to conclusions or sensationally state that "only three books" are assigned when it is obvious that any child following the curriculum program will be reading far more than three books.

I also would suggest considering the types of books the school has assigned, especially "Seven Habits for Highly Effective Teens", which I believe would be far more practical and insightful for 'tweens to read than some of the novels educators typically assign.

In closing, I'd suggest you posting, some of the innovative and great things JIS is doing and which led you and your husband to return here because you felt good about having your kids in JIS. This would ensure that you maintain balance in the site when it comes to JIS-specific issues, something that appears to be sorely missing in some elements of the JIS community (especially some of the "newsletters" being circulated, which cite your site as "the real truth" or something to that effect.

It would be unfortunate for a site as useful and intelligent as yours to be associated with such biased and ill-intentioned publications.

At 4:20 PM, Blogger Cheryl van Tilburg said...

Hello again, Anonymous.

Thanks for another really thoughtful comment. I'd forgotten about the "7 Habits" book -- so you're right, we're up to four books in middle school. And yes, my daughter also completes a reading log.

But outside reading and in-class study of literature are two different things -- and few students naturally gravitate towards heavy-duty books if given a choice. But it's those great books (like Animal Farm, Night, To Kill a Mockingbird, etc.) that form the foundation for the more difficult texts the kids will have to read -- and analyze -- later in their educational careers.

I hear you on your other thoughts. I try to keep it positive, to focus on what's best for students, and to help parents learn about the subject of education. The other stuff is not my bag.

Thanks again for your comment. You've helped clarify my thinking on this subject.

At 6:38 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Regarding the reading log, isn't it ultimately the parents' responsibility to point their kids in the right direction when it comes to reading great books? I agree it would be useful to analyze great books in class, but I don't think that's the extent of most English courses. Therefore, something's gotta give. I think the issue should not be the quantity of books they read, but what they actually do with them when they do read them for school. So perhaps it would be better to examine how they analyze the books they read and the process they go through. Frankly, I'd rather have my kids learning to read thoroughly and completely four books, and analyze and discuss them thoroughly, than rush through more without really "getting" them. This type of learning will last a lifetime. So, in my view, it's an issue of quality over quantity. I would suggest you explore the process, not the volume.

I'm very glad to hear the childish "Rumour Alert" that refers its readers to your site is "not your bag". Perhaps you should consider a disclaimer, or a "cease and desist" request to the "Rumour Alert" authors? The fact that there's a link to your impressive and informative site from a rag that personally attacks an individual JIS Council member (Vol. 1, Issue 2) might lead readers to the wrong conclusions, especially given your role in the PTA. It's a sad state of affairs when volunteers (such as you) spending their time, either in Council, PTA, or PAF, are rewarded individuals in the community with personal attacks or criticisms in any form. What does this demonstrate to our children about their parents?

At 7:38 PM, Blogger Cheryl van Tilburg said...

Dear Anonymous,

Thanks for your comment -- I'm thankful someone's even reading this blog!

As a parent I stay out of book selection for the "reading log" reading, other than taking my daughter to the bookstore, showing her how to get book reviews and info, or mentioning books she might enjoy. I believe kids should choose their own outside reading, be it chick-lit or graphic novels or more serious fare. Outside reading is all about building a love of literature, and ultimately, that has to come from within. (And I've seen this hold especially true for struggling readers.)

It's the reading instruction that takes place IN the classroom that I'm talking about. When you say, "So perhaps it would be better to examine how they analyze the books they read and the process they go through," I say YES! But that implies that students are actually reading books. And while the quantity of books taught should never be the sole focus of good educational practice, it does mean something -- especially when the number is zero.

(Check out E.D. Hirsch's website,, for information on why specific content -- not just process -- does matter in education.)

In high school, students must be able to construct character analyses, unravel theme, identify the key questions posed by a piece of literature, and discuss the authors' treatments of those questions. They have to understand literary devices and why they work, and how literature builds on itself with allusions, metaphors, and archetypes. (And this isn't at all an exhaustive list of the benefits of reading great literature -- look at my posting on 9/28 for even more reasons to read -- and teach -- great books.)

Middle school is the perfect time to begin building these skills. But without an abundance of high-quality reading on the docket, then it comes down to the luck of the draw. Will some kids succeed even without great books in the curriculum -- yes. But I don't think "some kids" is good enough.

So I'm going to keep advocating for a quick tweek to the curriculum that would benefit all students. (And yes, while overall school curriculum design can be a ponderous and glacial process, schools CAN act quickly to fill identifable holes. In my experience, curriculum teams at the grade level can work with the administration to quickly implement changes if they see fit.)

Thanks again for your challenging -- and thought-provoking -- comments. I continue to learn as I work through this issue, and that's a good thing, I hope!

At 1:23 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think the initiative of the middle school to have students reading after lunch for a period of time gives the opportunity for a focus on reading. You should ask the library teacher what the increase in general borrowing has been as a result of that program and maybe even ask her about changing attitudes about borrowing? It is all very well to say the program must include the classics but let's have a look at what classics are appropriate for middle schoolers. And I agree with Anonymous also, isn't there the role of the parent somewhere in all this to encourage reading, support reading and hope that your child develops the love of reading as well as the skills to 'disect' the classics. "To Kill a Mockingbird" is indeed studied at JIS but in the more appropriate setting of High School, not middle school. Having had a son who has moved through the middle school to the final year of High school and is the most competent reader and writer with superb analytical skills, as was demonstrated on his SAT scores in 11th grade. I would say the school is doing a pretty good job. He came out of the Middle school with incredible skills in both reading and writing, a credit I believe to the hard work of the teachers and the invigorating program he was part of.


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