LASD's new English curriculum draws opponents, defenders

Crystal Tai/Town Crier
English teacher Karen Kehlet gives eighth-grade students one-on-one guidance last week in class at Egan Junior High School. Egan adopted a new English curriculum this school year.

The Los Altos School District’s new English curriculum for its two junior high schools has drawn criticism from parents, but district officials defend the strategy-based system that allows students to choose their own reading materials.

Nancy Bremeau, whose son attends Egan Junior High, told the Town Crier that many parents hire tutors to supplement the new English curriculum, which she said “no longer offers grammar, spelling and vocabulary instruction.”

Bremeau, three other parents and a student aired their concerns about the new curriculum at the Jan. 8 school board meeting. In addition, Bremeau has since sent an email to Los Altos Educational Foundation board president Katherine Stephens to express her disappointment with it.

“My honest opinion is that the district, including the trustees, needs to spend more time on the academic side of running this district versus the land acquisition side,” Bremeau wrote in the email, which she allowed the Town Crier to quote.

Egan adopted the new curriculum last August; Blach Intermediate School launched it this month. Eventually, it will be implemented districtwide in grades 3 and up, according to Sandra McGonagle, assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction.

“The fundamental shift between what we were teaching in English in the past and what we are teaching in English now is that we are really teaching kids strategies for reading any book,” she said.

Based on the new guidelines, students no longer spend weeks reading one book their English teacher selected. Instead, the teacher will read a “mentor text” aloud with students, pointing out key details and craft moves, then allowing students to choose books to read independently or within their book club to apply the skills and strategies they are learning in class, McGonagle noted.

Students are required to keep a log of the books they are reading independently and in groups, she added.

Easing parents’ concerns

To assuage parents’ doubts about the books selected by students and to respond to their request for more classics, Mc- Gonagle reassured them that classics remain among the choices. However, students are encouraged to widen their genre options, and she said freedom of choice drives them to read more.

“In the past, students read three to four books over the course of the year in English,” she said. “Now, the minimum number of books was four in the first semester, and some kids read up to 20 books. The Egan library circulation is up 55 percent at this time compared to last year. They are reading more books than ever.”

Another issue raised by dismayed parents at the meeting was the lack of corrections and comments in students’ writing notebooks. In response, Egan Principal Keith Rocha explained that the notebooks are only for student brainstorming, which should not be interrupted by teacher feedback. He said Egan students receive the teachers’ marks in Google Classroom, a learning management system developed by Google Inc. for schools that aim to simplify creating, distributing and grading assignments in a paperless way.

“Teachers in our English department utilize Google Classroom to comment on papers and give students feedback,” Rocha said.

A parent without his or her child’s password would not be able to see the interaction between teacher and student in Google Classroom, and that’s probably why some parents underestimate the amount of work the teacher does, Rocha said.

Rocha encouraged parents to sit beside their child when he or she is doing writing homework through Google Classroom on the computer.

In the classroom at Egan, students sit in front of laptops and in small groups. The English teacher walks around to give one-on-one guidance to each student.

Meanwhile, as Blach adopts the same curriculum, Principal Bhavna Narula said “rigor continues to be at the forefront and at the core of our curriculum,” including for the English curriculum implementation.

“Homework expectations for both reading and writing have not changed,” she said.

A discussion of the curriculum was on the agenda of Monday’s school board meeting, held after the Town Crier’s press deadline.

LASD junior highs’ past reading requirements

• “Lord of the Flies” by William Golding

• “The Ghost in the Tokaido Inn” by Dorothy and Thomas Hoobler

• “Night” by Elie Wiesel

• “Fahrenheit 451” by Ray Bradbury

• “The Glory Field” by Walter Dean Myers

• “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” by Mark Twain


Today’s ‘mentor texts,’ which serve as exemplars to help students select books on their own

• “First French Kiss” by Adam Bagdasarian

• “The Circuit” by Francisco Jiménez

• “Patrol: An American Soldier in Vietnam” by Walter Dean Myers

• “The Things They Carried” by Tim O’Brien

• “Fast Food Nation” by Eric Schlosser

• “Welcome to the Monkey House” by Kurt Vonnegut

• “At the Mouth of the River of Bees” by Kij Johnson

Source: Sandra McGonagle

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