Elective System Allows for Student Choice and Exploration

Winter 2013

During the first five years of the high school, all freshmen were enrolled in World Literature and World History. Their sophomore year, they took American Literature and American History. In their junior and senior years, rather than taking a prescribed course, they were allowed to choose between a wide variety of semester-long electives.

The response to elective English courses was so popular —both amongst students and staff—that Innovation Academy made a large shift this year in its approach to course design and student schedules. By expanding elective offerings to other subject areas, all students have more freedom to choose between courses and design their own schedules.

“The goal is allow teachers to design courses about which they feel passionate. It also gives students choice in deciding what classes they take,” says Greg Orpen, principal of the high school. “Lastly, having theme based electives pushes us towards exploration and away from survey courses, which often emphasize coverage,” he says. Since the elective courses are semester-long, rather than yearlong, in many ways they are more similar to college courses than traditional high school courses. They focus on a specific topic, and allow for students and teachers to delve more deeply into it.

The freedom to choose between courses has increased student engagement. “I feel like the ability to choose more of my classes makes it more likely for me to be interested in the subject matter of the classes, and liking the topic makes me a million time more likely to learn. To be able to tailor my classes to fit my personal interests makes my education feel more relevant to my life and my interests,” says Sophie Harrington, a senior.

“The classes are different because of the elective system. I feel students are having a good time learning because they are taking part in the classes they choose to be in. It’s honestly a good feeling for me, knowing that my friends are enjoying school,” says Catherine Roller ’16.

In the English department, freshmen and sophomores are grouped together, and this semester they chose from a variety of elective courses: Cause and Consequence, 20th Century American Masters, Rhetoric & Argument, and Dystopias in Fiction & Film. Juniors and seniors chose between Western Philosophy, College Writing, Craft of Fiction, and Modernism. The offerings change each semester, with popular courses offered on a two-year cycle.

Tom Hinkle, the curriculum coordinator for the English department, is teaching Rhetoric and Argument, which explores questions of argumentation, reason, and persuasion. Students are looking at rhetoric and reason as they work in political speech, our every day lives, and formal academic work. In addition to reading rhetorical classics from literature and history, they also closely studied the 2012 election cycle. “It’s been a lot of fun helping kids understand what’s going on around them with the election season and I also think the students have done a good job having debates that are both vigorous and respectful,” Hinkle says.

Catherine Roller, a freshman in Hinkle’s Rhetoric and Argument course, says she appreciates that the English class has a mixture of ninth and tenth grade students. “By having mixed-grade classes, I can turn to one of the sophomores in my class to ask them a question, or to just have a normal conversation. I have other peers that have already been in the ninth grade, and they know what will be expected of us when it comes to class work and projects. The classes are more comfortable for me because I have someone older to turn to,” she says.

Maria Figueroa, a senior, agrees that the mixed-grade classes push students to get to know each other. “It’s weird because you feel that you’re so much older than the underclassmen and then all of sudden they’re your partner on a project. But that’s what IACS is all about—having a great sense of community,” she says.

This term, Hinkle is also teaching the 11th and 12th grade English elective Craft of Fiction. “It’s a select group of kids that are interested in writing fiction, but it’s enormous fun to work with them. One of the things I love about the class is that it selects a subset of kids who’s really interested in stories and in reading,” he says. According to many teachers and students, this is one of the many benefits of the elective system—it enables students and a teacher to come together to learn about a topic they have a shared interest in.

Though elective courses are narrow in scope, the high school remains committed to interdisciplinary work and pushing students to draw connections between different subjects. “With both classes this year, it’s amazing how much teaching I do that has nothing to do with English per se,” says Hinkle. “In my Rhetoric and Argument class, I’ve been teaching basic numeracy, political science and history, as well as logic, rhetoric and the fundamentals of writing and speaking.”

“In the fiction class, what I have to teach is as varied as what kids want to write. It’s always fascinating what they end up needing to learn about and I love learning both what kids like and know about, and also what strange gaps exist in their knowledge that creep up in their fiction,” Hinkle explains.

Ben Gross, who joined Innovation Academy this year as an English teacher, is teaching Dystopias in Fiction and Film to 9th and 10th grade students, and the 11th and 12th grade Modernism course. “Having taught at schools without electives and affinity grouping, I do notice a difference in student engagement. As a teacher, it means I have more ownership over my curriculum, and while I am always invested in the classes I am teaching, it is much, much easier selling them and investing in them when I’ve chosen what to invest and sell,” he says.

Gross previously taught English in Austin, Texas and at two other high schools in Massachusetts. He’s excited to create new courses at IACS and avoid the monotony of teaching the same curriculum year after year. Before coming to IACS, “I could already feel myself worrying about getting bored having to teach the same things again and again,” he says.

Hinkle says that teachers have a great deal of freedom in designing courses that they are passionate about. “We sit down as a department and talk about what the kids need and want and what we’re interested in doing. As teachers, we’re all deeply invested in our students and in figuring out what gets them excited and what they need. The elective system lets us respond creatively to the needs of our students,” he says.

In the history department this semester, tenth grade students were able to choose between one of three semester electives focused on American Studies: American Immigration, Westward Expansion, and Revolution & Constitution. Juniors and seniors were able to select from offerings such as The Italian Renaissance, 20th Century China, Revolutions in Science, and The Cold War.

Shannon Morocco, a history teacher at the high school, is teaching The Cold War course. “The Cold War is an area of history that up to this point hasn’t earned too much attention in other classes and it is such an interesting period to study with so many rich primary sources from films, books, comics, and cartoons,” she says. “We have explored the ideological differences between capitalism and communism, and the fear and anxiety that erupted throughout the era.” The course has focused on the time frame from the post-World War II period through the early 60s, though many activities granted students the opportunity to learn more about other key leaders and events in later decades. The course will wrap up with students completing a photo essay on an aspect of The Cold War that they have not yet explored in depth. “It has been so much fun to teach this course this semester and it is certainly one that I’d love to teach again,” she says.

In science, all students continue to take a lab class (engineering, biology, chemistry, and physics), but can augment their lab class with an elective in their junior and senior years, with offerings such as Environmental Systems, Anatomy & Physiology, and Computer Programming. Donna Harrington’s Computer Programming class introduces students to programming by exploring and sampling what she calls “a buffet of computer languages.” Students use Khan Academy Java, Udacity Python, program Apps in Android App Inventor, create websites using various tools, and even get a chance to experiment with Robotic equipment and brand new Raspberry Pi Computers. “Using so many different methodologies in one semester class mirrors the elective system itself,” says Harrington. “Students get several chances to find and express their own skills. Students who are not passionate about Python might love web design, or someone who doesn’t like graphical programming might enjoy Java code,” she says.

Rather than taking a generic Spanish level 1, 2, and 3 course, students are also able to choose from a variety of semesterlong electives. “We offer three levels of Spanish at the high school and all students have free range to take any class geared towards their level of readiness regardless of their age.We do this based on the fact that a student’s ability to converse in the target language determines what they can understand and do in a class,” says William Carvajal, the Spanish curriculum coordinator at the high school.To help students know what level of Spanish they are in, and understand the skills they need to work on to be able to transition from one level to the other,the Spanish department has created and implemented an assessment tool based on the Massachusetts English Oral Evaluation (MELAO). This oral evaluation is applied each semester in each class.

This semester, Carvajal is teaching Chateando con Colombia (Chatting with Colombia, a level 2 Spanish course), which examines the history of violence in Colombia, its effects on Colombian society, and how it manifests in Colombian art. “I decided to teach this course to provide students the opportunity to chat with native Colombians through Skype and communicate in Spanish through phone calls or letters,” he says.

He’s also teaching a level 3 elective course, Univision, Latinoamérica y Los Estado Unidos, which focuses on a more in-depth study of different cultures in Jared Cote ’14 and Emily Bergman ’14 write stories in their Craft of Fiction elective. Spanish-speaking nations. As part of this course, “They getto visit the headquarters of Univision, the biggest Spanish language television network in the United States,” says Carvajal. “I always wanted to teach this course to provide students the background they need to understand Hispanic culture, including, of course, that of the growing Latino population in the USA.”

The arts department at IACS, which includes both visual arts and music, is structured so that students are given increasing options through elective courses as they progress through the program. Freshmen are required to take one semester of visual arts and one semester of music; sophomores choose between full year courses in either visual arts, music, or digital art; and juniors and seniors are able to choose from a variety of visual arts and music elective courses. Art classes offered this semester include: Musical Responses to Violence and Turmoil; Art & Technoogy; Chorus; Contemporary Art Practices: Originality; and Traditional Art Practices: Human Form. This semester, in Traditional Art Practices: Human Form, students are working on three larger projects around the theme of human form: drawings from human skulls, portrait paintings, and sculptures of full human figures. In Contemporary Art Practices: Originality, students are working on three larger projects around the themes of sampling, appropriation, and recreation.

According to Zach Pelham, an art teacher at the high school, the art department works together to design the courses that will be offered each semester. “We work to figure out how to cover the historical breadth and cultural and national diversity of arts throughout history, and try to offer students courses which can ground them in basics while building towards more choice and depth,” he says.

In mapping out course offerings and designing curriculum, each department works to make sure there is a balance between content knowledge and skill development. Since American Studies II is no longer required of all juniors, Morocco says the history department discusses and plans what should be covered through the elective system so students do not graduate without knowledge of key pieces of American history. “While there is a lot of freedom in choice for teachers, there is also a lot of thinking within the department to offer students as thorough a scope of history as possible,” she says.

The elective system also pushes teachers to focus on the skills students need as they progress from freshmen to seniors, and to design courses around those skills, rather than on specific content, facts, or texts. “The school I previously worked at had content alignment and not so much skill alignment, which made it difficult to build on the students’ skills. The content knowledge was good to build on, but it generally felt a good deal more constrained, both in terms of what you could teach, and also what you had to teach and get through,” Gross says. The English department at IACS, he says, designs electives that will engage students while helping them gain the skills they need.

Students are already gearing up for next semester’s course offerings, which include selections such as Interpreting Othello: On the Page, on Stage, on the Screen, and Our Own; The Evolution of Modern Africa; Ancient Rome; Theater of the Absurd; A Nation in Crisis: The Great Depression in America; Wildlife Ecology; Gender and Literature; and Robotics, to just name a few. Students like Marc Printz, a sophomore, are excited to make their selections for spring semester. “Personally I love having the elective courses because when we get to choose our own classes based upon our own interests it allows us to appreciate our classes much more and engage in them more. The elective system makes the school feel more like a small college type of setting,” he says.

According to Orpen, “Research has shown that choice and motivation are tightly linked in teaching and learning. If choice can help students and faculty become even more engaged in their work, then it’s a win-win for our school.”

Morocco agrees: “Simply by giving students choice, they feel more empowered and invested in their education. For teachers, having an elective-based system means having the opportunity to teach the content and the specific focus areas that you love. Designing one’s own electives really helps to enhance the energy and enthusiasm of students and teachers alike.”