Mahwah Overhauls English Curriculum

New learning plan hopes to have students performing better on the SATs and state exams, promises to have students reading classics and learning more vocabulary and grammar

Beginning next September, Mahwah students in grades six through 12 will be expected to complete a “more rigorous” curriculum that officials say should help raise standardized test scores and streamline all students’ learning experiences, English Supervisor Dennis Fare and high school English teacher Dr. Mark Cacciatore told the during a presentation Wednesday night.

The duo has outlined a new, 387-page curriculum plan that is in line with the state’s new .

“I don’t want to say our old curriculum was lacking, but in my opinion it wasn’t up to where it should have been,” Cacciatore told the board.

In the new plan, grammar and vocabulary lessons will be weaved into every unit studied in each English class, Fare said. “Right now, our kids are only learning 15 vocabulary words a quarter.”

Classes will also study rhetorical devices, in an attempt to make students better prepared for standardized tests, he said.

Students will also be required to read more books during the school year. The requirement in regular education classes will be bumped from four to five books, and honors level classes will read six.

“We are also changing the required reading list,” Fare said. “Especially at the level, we want to include more texts from the traditional literary cannon.” The board has discussed at previous meetings that the district’s required reading list has moved “too far” from classic works, and was focusing too heavily on contemporary, less-known books.

“It’s a mix of new and old, so everything from your Shakespeare to your Toni Morrison,” Fare explained. “But it’s high-quality literature, the type of books that our students should be able to recognize quotes from.”

The new curriculum will also allow for all Mahwah students to get a more standardized learning experience, regardless of which teacher they have, school officials explained. “[The curriculum] is not prescriptive, so there is still room for creativity and the individual style of each teacher,” Assistant Superintendent Janet Donohue said. “But, it is designed so that the same opportunity is afforded to every student, and each will have the same major experience. That is something to celebrate.”

The new teaching plan should also help students perform better on current state exams, and the future Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) tests that the state plans to roll out to New Jersey schools.

“We want to focus on the bubble students,” Fare said. “So, those kids that are on the cusp of proficiency and those on the cusp of advanced proficiency [scores on the state exams]. I think we can have more kids scoring in the advanced proficiency level.”

The new vocabulary and grammar instruction should help increase student scores on the Critical Reading and Writing scores on the SATs, Fare said.

Mahwah’s Class of 2011 averaged an SAT critical reading score of 549, and a writing score of 574 on the SATs. Averages are higher than the state averages of 495 in critical reading and 497 in writing.

“Our SAT scores are good, but I think they can be better,” Fare said. The new curriculum, “if done right cannot fail in helping students perform better,” Cacciatore added.

The curriculum rewrite is one of many occurring district-wide to allign Mahwah's curriculum with Common Core standards. The Common Core is a set of standards aimed at better prparing students for college. New Jersey adopted the standards in 2010, and the district has been working to reallign its curricula since then.

Ariel May 10, 2012 at 10:35 PM
Mr. Fare said that, “Right now, our kids are only learning 15 vocabulary words a quarter.” I don't know where he is getting this number from, but this has certainly never been the case for me. In the past week alone in an honors class, I have been required to learn 25 vocabulary words. My class probably completes 60 to 75 vocabulary words in each unit; we have multiple units per marking period. The college prep class completes at least 10 vocabulary words per unit. I do not have a problem with moving away from more contemporary works, but this also has a negative side effect. First, many students prefer reading contemporary works. Second, the "classics" tend to be harder to read, leading more kids to simply read the Sparknotes. I have seen students go through all of Romeo and Juliet without understanding a bit of Shakespearean English. I do agree that, in theory, if all students were interested in learning, reading the classics would improve comprehension skills as well as vocabulary. I feel that the best way to improve students' scores is to increase teacher training. When a class is captivating and exciting, the students pay more attention and get more out of everything. Ms. Beatrice gives her students books to read that don't have Sparknotes, and this forces her students to read and comprehend on their own. She also makes class so fascinating that I have never once seen a student of hers fall asleep in class. I hope this helps and not hurts students.
Gottardo DiGiacopo May 10, 2012 at 11:14 PM
thank you for your 'current' insight Ariel!!! mahwah announcing an overhaul to the english curriculum doesn't mean the old one sucked; it just means they keep striving for improvement. i've been mostly impressed with newer teaching methods... especially 'new'er math (even though i did very well with the old one in the 1960s & 70s) my kids did very well in the mahwah schools. teaching to the test obviously has many drawbacks... it's good to see the public finally pushing back. but this plague of always blaming teachers and schools for coming up short (or being too stupid to see straight) is just B*ll Sh*t. parents who excite their kids at home about learning and language will often see those kids do quite well... but sometimes not. other kids find literature satisfies an intellectual or emotional need on their own. many have little interest in flash fiction let alone the classics and those kids like all the others need to be taught to speak and write well first and foremost. it's easy to euphemize the past. i remember, somewhat traumaticly, watching several classmates (who would be classified today) get abused and fall thru the cracks because they were not at all understood. they were hit and mocked and learned very little... should we go back to that also for all the children with I.E.P.s?
Anonymous May 11, 2012 at 01:21 AM
I agree, except college prep classes, at least mine, are learning and are tested on vocabulary once every week. So we learn our fair share too. But you are completely right. And what's a true English education without the classics? It's not right, that's what it is.
wendyl May 11, 2012 at 02:16 AM
Look. Teaching tests as some kind of negative is absurd. You have to teach test. It is a matter of academic survival. Are you really serving a child well if you do not teach tests, given that everything the student does that will be measured by with any sort of significance will be measured by tests. Test, test, test. Get used to it. Everything you do professionally from here on is measured by tests. You test to get to the next grade. Test to get to the best colleges. Test to get from one semester to the next, and you test to compete for the best jobs. You test to get professional tittles, etc. It's true that test grading is not looking at the entire person, but if you do not face this reality, you are living in another reality.
Doreen Strauch May 11, 2012 at 11:51 AM
I am looking forward to the english curriculum change. I would like to see more emphasis on writing and grammar. I hate that we are teaching our children to simply pass the tests, but I know that it the way it is these days. I am also looking forward to a change in the books they read. I am tired of them reading books with suicide, rape, and dysfunctional families, there has to be a better book selection than that.


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