Teaching Skills, Honoring Student Voices: English at FCS

For a relatively small school, Friends’ Central can claim a surprising number of alumni/ae who are making a living in literary, academic, and artistic fields where writing skills are key. Is there something in the water here? Quaker Works sent out a call to alumni/ae in college and in professions that require writing ability to share their career experience and FCS memories, and we spoke to current faculty in all three divisions to explore the School’s approach to the teaching of English skills.   

Leah Franqui ’05, author of America for Beginners released in July 2018, and Mother Land to be released in May 2020, was among those who responded to our request for reflections on English at FCS. “Friends’ Central nurtured my love of storytelling because our literature classes introduced me to so many writers whose diverse methods and ideas opened up my sense of what writing could be,” she said. “It was only later when I got to college that I realized how radical, inclusive, and diverse the works I read in high school were. Friends’ Central introduced me to García Márquez, Rushdie, Kushner, Woolf, Faulkner, Morrison, and so much more.” 

A more recent graduate, Julian Shapiro-Barnum ’17, reflected on his own FCS English experience. “I remember (Teacher) Monty led a seminar class about climate fiction and writing about the environment … It was the first time I felt like what I created and read had political agency. Reading classics are important, but something about reading works regarding the now got me so excited, and it was the first time I wrote a short story I loved.” 

In the Upper School, there are a range of teachers with a range of different styles, explained Laurie Novo, who currently teaches 12th grade English and has taught all four Upper School grades in her 27 years at FCS, “but we are pretty united as a department on how important it is to write, not just to learn about a book or be able to give information about it, but to find ways of using writing to express what you think.” For Laurie, this has been a hallmark of the English experience throughout her years here.

Katie Dickerson, Upper School English Department Chair, concurred, “Everyone (in the English department) wants kids to enjoy reading and talking about books and writing about books. Everyone wants to be student-centered. The way we make meaning from books and the way we craft our writing comes from the student.”

“The thread that’s common among all of the Lower School teachers is that the writing is driven by student voice and student choice.”

Christie Kapothanasis
Fifth Grade Literacy Specialist

Encouraging students to explore their own voices through writing starts in the very earliest grades. “The thread that’s common among all of the Lower School teachers is that the writing is driven by student voice and student choice – what the students are interested in, what they’re good at – and then working from those areas to help them develop as writers,” noted Christie Kapothanasis, Fifth Grade Literacy Specialist.  

Beginning in Pre-K, students keep journals – expressing themselves however they can, even before most can actually write. It’s an approach that ensures that writing is creative and self-directed from day one. Laurie Novo shared, “From the perspective of a parent – as someone who had kids who went all the way through FCS – I do think there was an orientation that started in the Lower School, where there were so many opportunities for expression in language and in art.”

Lower School Principal Melody Acinapura explained that a shift in the approach to English teaching is starting to happen in the Lower School, with a move towards a greater focus on technical skills that they feel will only enhance the creative expression of the students. “There’s been this real push to take on Writer’s Workshop (an interdisciplinary writing technique which builds students’ fluency in writing through continuous, repeated exposure to the process of writing), which fifth grade is now doing to its full integrity since last year,” said Melody. And the aim is to progressively move the program into the younger Lower School grades, with teachers receiving the intensive training that the program requires.

Christie Kapothanasis, who along with Lower School Learning Specialist Jackie Merchant, has played a key role in the implementation of the program, added, “The students have all these great ideas; there’s no lack of creativity, but to sit down and write a piece that is well organized, where they’ve thought about the audience and they have the mechanics, and they have varied sentence
structure. I think that’s where Writer’s Workshop can really come in and support our writers.”

In Middle School, a rigorous approach to technical skill building has always been central to English teaching, but it continues to go hand-in-hand with a respect for the voice of each student.

“Even though it’s student-centered, we’re still designing the assignments,” said Middle School Assistant Principal and English teacher Keino Terrell. “We’re giving kids options and allowing them, as often as possible, to write about things that they’re passionate about. And that may mean dissecting a piece of literature, finding the piece that resonates with them, and building a thesis around it, or having them write reflections in ways that speak to the relationship that kids have with the literature. All of that gives them agency.”  

Keino Terrell teaching his seventh grade English class

In Middle School, students also learn a critical skill, Keino explained. “How do you actually support an argument? We’re not short on opinions around here, but supporting those opinions in a way that is limited to the text becomes the challenge. Can I find the evidence that I need to support a claim by only using this source? 

“One of the more interesting assignments in Middle School happens in eighth grade,” said Keino. “We have kids write about the justice topic that they’re most passionate about. And that’s just the beginning; that’s not the graded part. Their final paper must defend the opposite perspective. What it requires them to do is to really try to understand another person’s perspective. That’s a tough one. It’s really difficult for them, but it’s one of the assignments that the kids feel that they get the most out of.”

In the Upper School, Katie and Laurie described the teaching techniques as varying to some degree based on teacher style and student grade level. However, both mentioned the common element of “stealth” assignments for younger students – assignments that Laurie described as “very analytic but not scary, so kids don’t have this immediate fear – ‘Oh, no, I have to write a paper!’ They don’t always realize that they’re being analytic; but they’re actually developing the skills. An example would be the 10th grade book, Of Mice and Men, which has these pretty deep moments of ambiguity. It’s told objectively, so you see everything that’s happening, but you don’t get much insight into the characters’ heads, so you don’t always know why it’s happening.” Students might be asked to explore in a writing assignment questions they have about the motivations behind the actions of a particular character.

“We move to more abstract books over the course of the year,” said Katie, “so we let them build up their confidence and their skills and apply them to increasingly difficult material. And that’s true over the course of the whole curriculum.”

When asked what she most enjoys about teaching at FCS, Katie responded, “I really like the students’ initiative and their desire to learn. There’s a quote I read somewhere to the effect that your class should be run in a way that, if you leave, it’ll keep going. I really see that with my students and their desire to learn and their desire to work together to make meaning of texts. As an example, we’ve started a practice this year in some classes, for large group discussions, where one student will be the clerk and will run the discussion and another will be the recording clerk, and they’ll take the notes. We did one recently in one of my 10th grade sections for a chapter in Of Mice and Men. They’re really working on developing the skills needed to be part of that listening and speaking interaction.”

Mirrors & Windows: How Books Make it into the FCS English Curriculum

When it comes to book choice in the curriculum across all divisions, it’s a dynamic process. The selection of texts is under regular discussion and evaluation, with the concept of Mirrors and Windows at the forefront. As Katie Dickerson explained, “Students should be able to see themselves reflected back in books sometimes, and they should also be able to use books as a window into other people’s lives.

When it comes to book choice in the curriculum across all divisions, it’s a dynamic process. The selection of texts is under regular discussion and evaluation, with the concept of Mirrors and Windows at the forefront.

“We’re always conscious about diversifying texts in our curriculum,” Katie continued. “For ninth grade, we changed Kindred to Homegoing. Homegoing is a little more modern. It follows two sisters – one sold into slavery; one who marries a slave trader – and all of their descendants up until 2000.”

“In the Middle School,” said Keino Terrell, “over the last five to six years, we’ve switched out almost every text. A few have ‘survived’ because they’re still very relevant – among them, To Kill a Mockingbird and The Breadwinner. The literature in the Middle School is very diverse in terms of author and perspective, so we have this rich racial and cultural diversity that’s found in the texts that is providing a lot of different world views.”

“Middle Schoolers are grappling with a lot of questions about themselves and how they fit into the world,” explained Middle School Principal Alexa Quinn ’98, “and being able to read about characters who are also grappling with similar questions can help them in their own process of discovery.”

In the summer of 2018, Middle School English teacher Laurel Burkbauer received a Farraday Mastership stipend to further develop the seventh grade curriculum as a whole, which included a thorough review of the literature selections. Laurel sought to explore whether the texts were vertically integrated and if they supported the analytical skills being taught in the literature program. She also looked at the books being taught and considered the balance of literature that would engage seventh graders while teaching them the skills they’ll need in eighth grade.

Laurie Novo described the 12th grade texts. “We start with Oryx and Crake, and now we’re reading Frankenstein, and then it will be Beloved and Hamlet. So it’s a virtually perfect curriculum! All four books really speak to each other in these very interesting ways, so they’re a great package. And they’re also the right books at the right time because they’re very much about what happens when you step out into the unknown without a support system, as an independent choice maker, which is what all the seniors are thinking about doing.”

The book choice across all divisions is clearly successfully engaging students on both a personal and an intellectual level; it’s also helping foster empathy. Katie Dickerson mentioned, “Something I end up writing about in a lot of students’ recommendation letters is how empathetic they are to characters in literature. I do think that must partially come from a Quaker education – the SPICES and the way we talk about interacting with other people. When I write their letters, I go back and look at things they said during class or things they wrote papers on, and a lot of it is trying to put themselves in the character’s shoes, debating a character’s decision and trying to see the character’s side.”

“An important part of the English curriculum in Middle School,” said Alexa Quinn, “is using literature to better understand ourselves and to better understand the world around us. And that can be through characters that are similar to us or characters that are really different from us. So literature helps us to not only do a self-exploration but also to develop empathy, and that’s a key part of, in my opinion, being an English teacher.” 

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