The Secrets of the English Curriculum

Kemesha Reid-Miller

Close your eyes and imagine; I want you to think about a moment in your post-secondary school lives where you’ve sat in an english class and in the middle of the lesson, your professor asks: “Who has been taught this in high school?” And you couldn’t raise your hand because your answer was “I wasn’t”. Embarrassing, right? Actually, no -- because most likely ninety-five percent of that class answered no as well, and I was one of them. Most would think, “this is ridiculous” -- but, what’s even more ridiculous is the fact that it is a cycle that will continue through generations if the high school english curriculum remains the same or if there is nothing available to make a positive change. You are currently listening to “The Secrets of the English Curriculum” and this is Kemesha Reid-Miller.

    

What’s interesting to me though, is that there are so many programs in motion in the city of Toronto that thrive and go the extra mile just to ensure student success, not just in english, but every other subject that is taught in high school. It has me thinking, well, teachers are there to teach, right? So, why are there so many other programs basically doing their jobs for them, when they should just be assisting?

    Hmm, I don’t know, but there’s something sketchy about all of that to me. I don’t recall after school programs being a part of the TDSB. They don’t have an obligation to teach what a student’s teacher touched on in class -- even though, out of the goodness of their hearts, they do. The high school english curriculum pdf mentions a lot about helping students become successful language learners.

So, it’s clear that they have set goals for high school student’s success. But what the high school students are being taught is reflecting on their school work in post-secondary and it’s not really a positive reflection at that. I know, I know, it may be a problem with all high school courses, but english is where this specific problem presents itself the most. So, where is the effort to ensure students success really coming from?

Personally, I would say the after school programs, although everyone is entitled to their own opinions; but, let me explain why. It seems as though students learn so much more when they’re being taught by a program staff member, one-on-one, because that program staff member or volunteer can give them logical and specific explanations; opposed to being in a classroom with twenty to thirty other students, where their teacher gives them broad to no explanations. I mean, broad to no explanations are useless when learning and knowing English is mandatory to a successful high school life, a successful post-secondary life, a successful work life, a successful -- well, life in general.

 

I think it’s safe to say, English is a really big deal. It’s too bad that the same people who are supposed to enforce the learning of english, treat it as something so -- small.

    Merfat A. Alsubaie wrote an article about something that was completely foreign to me. She wrote about the “hidden curriculum” (125-128). My first thought was probably what you’re thinking now, which is “what is the curriculum hiding?” But, I completely misunderstood the concept. It was actually explaining when high school english teachers expect their students to know what they’ve never been taught. The worst thing about it all is that these teachers don’t even understand that, yes, some students may know, but others need you to clarify, they need you to teach, they need you to go over things repeatedly, try different methods and explain, or else -- they suffer.

Furthermore, teachers rely on the reading of literature to teach their students. But what they fail to understand is that not all students are going to learn english this way. Why? Because the interest will be missing.

Don’t get me wrong, content is very important to learning english, but what is content really worth if the student can’t connect to it or understand it? Not only that, but focusing too much on content when teaching or learning english is kind of a roadblock for students in post-secondary school. Because the content that is taught in high school is coming from novels that aren’t really of interest to the students and the content in the novels sometimes doesn’t match up to the reading levels of the students. So as a result, they don’t learn or get anything from it.

Therefore, when they start college or university, they sometimes lack critical thinking. Many post-secondary students learn how to think critically in post-secondary school. But for a certain amount of time, it affects the student’s work majorly. If you look at it this way, when a student lacks the ability to think critically, they cannot explain and give examples for their argument; and that’s because they cannot find the right words to say; and that’s because they have a weak vocabulary; vocabulary has almost everything to do with spelling; and what is that in relation to? -- grammar. The problem that majority of post-secondary students face in English. *sigh* I know. And why do we face it? We’re soon to find out.

    

Let’s consider some facts here. Fact number one regarding admission grades - getting into post-secondary school has everything to with grades. But, grades for admission aren’t very high to be honest; for majority of the programs offered in college and university, a student’s average as to be anywhere between 60% and 80%. It explains why students who lack knowledge on the basics of english, such as grammar get into post-secondary school. Don’t get me wrong, all that I’m saying is that if we were all tested for english skills in post-secondary school, it’s a sad truth but, majority of us would fail. Let’s stick several pins right there because I will get back to that.

    Fact number two regarding statistics - considering dropout rates, it’s interesting to note that high school dropout rates have not decreased by much since the 90’s, and I’m sure we can all guess which course is one of the major reasons for that -- As you probably guessed it, yes, it is english. Michael Bangser says high school english teachers aren’t doing their job (1-24). But, more importantly, because of that, there will always be a number of students dropping out of high school, and with that being the case, their lives become ruined. Their chances of going to college or university basically vanish from that moment because they’ve completely given up.

    It’s hard to figure out what’s worse, giving up or failing. Because if we jump to post-secondary school -- hold on a second -- let’s unstick those pins. The University of Waterloo, which is actually one of the few post-secondary schools in Ontario that give exams to test english skills, their statistics show that majority of the students fail the exam. The failure rate for the english skills exams went up by five percent from 2005 to 2010. That is crazy. Knowing that, we can only imagine how much the failure rate has gone up between 2010 to 2015, which was only last year -- maybe another five percent, although we would hope not.

    Because students lack knowledge on the basics of english, there has been a lot of stagnation in post-secondary schools in Toronto and at large, in Ontario. Statistics show that post-secondary school ratings either go up by one or two percent every year, go down by one or two percent every year or they stay stagnant every year. Either way, the ratings for post-secondary schools have not been excelling the way they should be.

Here’s how that happens: Because the teachers aren’t focused on the basics of english, involving topics like grammar, students go to college or university and put on display what they’ve learned in high school english. What should be present in the work that the students present in post-secondary school isn’t present. So their grades stay stagnant, and even worse, sometimes they fail or drop courses and as a result, the rating for the post-secondary school stays stagnant as well and that holds the school back from excelling.

    

All of these facts about the english curriculum are so important to think about. Especially the fact that students not excelling in english has been something that has been carried out for over a century and nothing has been done to better the situation -- at least not until after school programs started holding what I like to call tutoring sessions or homework sessions to offer help in enlightening the heavy and confused minds of students that walk into the program on a daily basis.

    And actually, with all of these negative statistics, I had to conduct some of my own to see if grammar and punctuation are really such major issues in english in post secondary school. I surveyed twenty students, which would basically be a class-load of students. I asked both college students and university students what their majors were and their opinions or struggles faced with post-secondary english, high school english and their opinions on after school programs. English and professional writing majors, communications majors, biotechnology majors, along with so many others took part in this survey. And here is what the results were: 17/20 students have taken english courses; 8/20 students have at some point considered dropping the english course. 16/20 students were taught completely new things in the post-secondary english class, while 1/20 students had their memory refreshed from high school. And 19/20 students noted that what they struggle with the most in english is grammar, punctuation and spelling. Wow. An even bigger wow is that all twenty students thought they could have benefited greatly from some kind of tutoring -- it really goes to show. But, at least with after school programs volunteering their time and knowledge to help students out, the negative statistics can become something positive in the near future.

 

I also got the chance to talk to two students who shared their opinions and experiences with their high school english courses; here’s what they had to say:

Lily: The english curriculum in high school was pretty garbage actually, I don’t really have a great experience. In my grade twelve high school class, I believe, my teacher didn’t really have any proper outlining for the course or anything like that, it was more like, he talked about his children the entire year. Uhm, yeah, it was pretty sad actually. In grade eleven it was pretty bad too, I mean, I had the same teacher again so it wasn’t the greatest. Also, during class, I just wanted to add that they didn’t actually teach anything, it was more like you would just hand an assignment in and they wouldn’t really care about the answers, like they could be completely wrong, but they would mark us on our grammar. Like, that’s it. And the thing is, if you wanted to mark us on our grammar, you might as well teach us the grammar too, you know because they wouldn’t say oh, you didn’t put a period there or like, an apostrophe here or anything like that. It was just, oh this is wrong, this is wrong, that is wrong. Instead of just saying, you know like -- making notes and stuff like that. The sad part is, we did try to complain a couple of times, like me and my classmates, but nothing was really done. I feel like in order for anything to really change, it should be brought up to -- idk, like someone in the Toronto District School Board or something like that, and yeah.

Sindy: So my opinion on the english curriculum is that it doesn’t help you transition to the university english curriculum. This is because in high school, they only enforced to use the five paragraph essay to prove a point. But, in university, you can write pages and pages and pages of body paragraphs for your essay. Also, in university, it is important to use your own voice for the essay, not only facts and so on. Also, in high school, grammar isn’t a big factor, but when you go to university, grammar is very important and they weigh it extremely on your grade. So, I believe that the high school curriculum should not, well, it should improve so that it can help students transition into the required university curriculum. Thank you.

 

It is clear that our high school teachers seem to believe that all the other aspects of english for example, content, which is the clear and obvious one, are far more important, so they focus on those and completely disregard the other things that are just as important. So, who is there to help teach high school students taking english courses about grammar or how to support an argument? Who is there to voluntarily take on the role of teaching these high school students what their teachers aren’t? Who is there to push and encourage student success?

Tutoring is one option, but to focus on something that is more voluntary? Something that involves tutoring and adds a lot of entertainment as well --  after school programs. The Toronto Public Library in particular has a free afterschool program called Youth Hubs, available to students between the ages of 13 and 19. As we all know, this is the age group of most high school students. This after school program is available at a number of different branches; Cedarbrae, Centennial, Fairview, Sanderson, York Woods and Maria A. Shchuka. I spoke to one of the program coordinators of the Youth Hubs program located at Maria A. Shchuka, her name is Courtney Cardozo and she explained to me a couple of things about the program that I found extremely fascinating.  

 

I asked: Was there a motive behind the creation of the program?

Her response was: The Library Youth Hubs are modeled after two existing After School Newcomer Youth Hubs which are located at Centennial Library and Sanderson Library. The After School Newcomer Youth Hubs support youth in successfully integrating into the Canadian school system and community. Building on the success and lessons learned from these existing Hubs, the Toronto Public Library expanded the program to new locations with a greater lens - to support youth in areas that are listed as neighbourhood improvement areas by the Poverty Reduction Strategy. As of September 2016, there is a total of six Toronto Public Library Youth Hubs within the city. Maria A. Shchuka opened this September and has been a growing success since it's onset.

Library Youth Hubs provide youth ages 13-19 with quality after-school homework help in math, science, English, French, and other subjects. Youth also have access to enriching complementary programs that help to develop social and leadership skills. Access to safe space, technology, volunteer tutors and curriculum resources contributes to positive outcomes for youth.

Library Youth Hubs contribute to the City's Toronto Strong Neighbourhood Strategy (TSNS) 2020 equity domains of economic development, social development and physical surroundings by providing homework help, technology and nutritional support, mentors and a welcoming space to youth in neighbourhood improvement areas.

 

I asked: How does the Youth Hubs program help youths in the community? What does it offer?

Her response was: The Hubs further support the City’s Poverty Reduction Strategy in addressing the following needs for youth: access to services, access to technology, access to nutrition.

The Program Goals in particular are:

- To provide a safe, welcoming space for youth during after school hours with access to supportive adults, technology and nutritious snacks

- To mitigate the digital divide that youth face by providing free use of laptops, software, tablets and apps that promote digital literacy and learning

- To provide youth with quality after school homework assistance in English, French, math, science and other subjects

- To help youth develop social and leadership skills through participation in a variety of activities

- To provide a quality volunteer experience for community members interested in working with youth.

 

I asked: What was your reason for taking on the position that you took on in the Youth Hubs program?

Her response was: I have a keen passion for servicing disenfranchised populations and I love working with youth. Supporting youth and providing them with the tools they need to thrive is something I am very fortunate to be apart of.

By building relationships of trust with the youth, I have been able to encourage them to do their homework, expose them to programs and technology that they may not know of and assist them with strengthening life skills that are needed for them to succeed. It's been so rewarding thus far and I look forward to being within the Youth Hub Coordinator role for a long while.

 

With the Youth Hubs staff even accepting volunteers who are currently enrolled in post-secondary school, including students who attend York University to help these youths out with homework in a proper learning environment, it’s not hard to tell that they are really serious about the academic achievement of the youths who come to their program. It seems to me that this after school program encourages student success far more than the high schools do judging by the positive reception it has been receiving. I don’t know if it’s just me, but the big issue always seems to lead right back to the teachers; and after speaking to one of the program coordinators of the TDSB english curriculum, ms. Sylvie Webb, who contributed to writing the english curriculum, I’ve come to the realization that the issue really does lie with the english teachers.

We held an interview that became so interesting that it became so much more of a conversation; I even got the chance to share my own personal opinions and experiences with her as well. We spoke about the issues surrounding the english curriculum, starting with the fact that it has not been revised in basically ten years.

Now, for the part that I was most interested in talking about, teaching in the high school english curriculum. Seeing that grammar is a huge issue for post secondary school students taking english, I found this important. I learned during this interview that teachers are supposed to teach grammar through literature; they are supposed to point these things out during the lesson on the piece of literature that the class is reading. But, students need more. The TDSB does have the teaching of grammar in the english curriculum, but we both, ms. Sylvie Webb and I, came to the conclusion that high school english teachers just choose not to touch on the drier subjects involved in english. They choose to teach what they are comfortable with, even if the students may suffer it. And that’s why after school programs are doing so much more of a better job teaching high school students, because they know how important those drier subjects are.

Therefore, we came to the conclusion that a reform is mandatory. It has to happen. Ms. Sylvie Webb expressed her appreciation for me coming in and sharing with her my opinions because with my representation of the entire student body who suffers from not being taught the basics of english, both in high school and post-secondary school, she can push forth the idea of reforming the english curriculum to fully prepare high school students for post-secondary school. That means the continuation of focusing on content, but having students bring their own books for reading that are at their reading level and that they are interested in, that way they actually learn something from it; also to equally focus on grammar, critical thinking and all other aspects of english. She also mentioned borrowing curriculum sections from different countries that have high success in english courses. With all of these changes made to the high school english curriculum and the after school programs continuing to assist in encouraging student success through homework help, the impact will be exceptional.

Who would have known that a conversation with a university student could result in something as life-changing as a reform in the high school english curriculum. How’s that for a big secret?

 

My name is Kemesha Reid-Miller once again, and this has been The Secrets of the English Curriculum. I hope you all enjoyed listening and most importantly, learned something new, something that you can think about. I want to thank my TA, Dunja Baus for the opportunities she gave me during this whole course and process of composing this podcast; I appreciate everything. I want to thank Courtney Cardozo, program director for the Youth Hubs program at Maria A. Shchuka for her contribution to my podcast and the common good of her community. I also want to thank Lily Tekabo and Sindy Cartegena for taking part in this podcast and expressing their opinions. And last but definitely not least, Ms. Sylvie Webb who I showed my gratitude to for her explanations because it opened my eyes to so much about the english curriculum, and I hope that in sharing the information that I learned, each and every one of you were able to learn something too.

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Bowlby, Jeoff. “Provincial Drop-Out Rates - Trends and Consequences”. Statistics Canada, 2008. Web.

Elley, W. B., Barham, I. H., Lamb, H., Wyllie, M. “The Role of Grammar in a Secondary School English Curriculum”. Research in the Teaching of English, Vol. 10, No. 1, 1976, pp. 5-21. Web.

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Macleans.ca. “University Students Can’t Spell”. Macleans, 2010. Web.

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Slavin, Alan. “Has Ontario Taught Its High School Students Not To Think?”. University Affairs, 2007. Web.

Toronto District School Board. “Curriculum: English and Literature”. Toronto District School Board, 2014. Web.

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