The storied history of senior English electives at KO

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While the conclusion of the first quarter might not mean much to many KO students, it is definitely a big deal for seniors. These past few weeks, which unfortunately falls just around the Nov. 1, deadline for many colleges and universities, have been filled with assessments. These quizzes and tests help determine the final first-quarter grades students often report to schools. All of these factors come together to create the perfect storm of stress, tests, and anxiety. 

Although overshadowed by this chaos, the end of the first quarter also marks the bittersweet halfway point for senior English electives, a unique academic tradition here at KO. There is no better time than now to explore the fascinating history of senior English electives, as well as the wide variety of offerings, both past and present. 

Unlike other schools, the configuration of senior English classes at KO is broken into three sections: first-semester electives (including the Baird Symposium class), third-quarter thesis, and a fourth-quarter elective. 

The structure we have today differs quite a bit from that of the past, according to English Department Chair and English teacher Catherine Schieffelin. “Back in the day, in 1987, when Mr. Monroe [former, longtime English teacher] got here,” she said, “the school was in trimesters instead of semesters, so there were three different English electives that students would take junior year and three new electives senior year because classes were mixed, both juniors and seniors.” 

Much like today’s electives, the trimester-long courses gave both students and teachers an opportunity to deep dive into a specific subject. Additionally, the fast pace of the elective kept students interested in what they were learning. 

Specific classes such as Masterpieces, co-taught by longtime English Department Chair Warren Baird and then English teacher Meg Kasprak, and Classics of Social Criticism, taught by science teacher Alex Kraus, among others, were designated as Honors or AP electives. This classification was not so different from our system today where students can choose to earn an Honors designation by completing a long-term, independent project related to the class. 

After switching from trimesters to semesters, the English curriculum had to be totally revamped. Some electives were added, in order to include enough content for 16 weeks, while others were completely thrown out. 

The shift to semesters also meant that classes were no longer combined with juniors and seniors. Ms. Schieffelin felt this aspect was valuable to English classes and is something to think about in the future. “I think it could be an interesting thing to consider, mixing juniors and seniors and electives again,” she said. “I don’t know if it could work. The thing that would restrict us, I think, is APs.” 

Ms. Schieffelin discussed what her experience with senior Electives has been throughout her years at KO. When she first arrived, she was given an African American literature elective which she taught for a couple of years before creating a creative nonfiction elective. “It was reading personal essays and profiles,” she said. “I did a small podcast unit in there too, so it was a lot of reading and immersing students in varieties of different types of creative nonfiction, but then also students doing a lot of creative writing themselves.” 

Today’s Art of Watching Film fall elective was actually a fourth-quarter elective that Ms. Schieffelin had previously taught and was able to expand to span the whole semester. The course focuses on viewing film and building the technical background and vocabulary to critically analyze it. Assignments throughout the semester include writing a film review on a pick from the American Film Institute’s top 100 American films of all time, a visually focused mise-en-scéne analysis, and a final project, utilizing all that students learn throughout the semester, to argue for a movie that the whole class should watch. 

Ms. Schieffelin mentioned that she had two main goals in mind when creating the class. “I hope the students hone their own movie tastes and start to explore different kinds of film,” she said. “I also want to prepare students if they want to write about film for their thesis – I want them to feel confident doing that.” 

In addition to helping students concentrate on a more narrow subject, the senior English electives give teachers opportunities to explore topics they feel are meaningful and interesting. English teacher David Hild has been teaching his elective on the American Dream for around 12 years now and still finds it just as relevant. “When I started the class, it was in a period of time, which I’d say it’s still true today, where there’s both tremendous optimism and pessimism about the whole idea of the American dream,” he said. “I thought it was an interesting thing for kids to explore through literature, drama, and poetry.” 

In a survey given to the current senior class, nearly all students who responded said that they like the senior English electives and hope they’ll remain in place in the future. The survey also asked for possible elective ideas for the future which included classes based on sports journalism, songwriting analysis, international film, and the English of mathematics.

Mr. Hild shared his thoughts on the future of senior English electives at KO. “There’ll certainly be changes,” he said. “I think the electives are good for seniors because it gives them some choice in what they’re studying, which is more like what they’re going to get in college. I don’t think there’s any motivation to go to English 6. I think students would fight that and I don’t think the department would be in favor of it either.” 

English electives for seniors have been a part of academics at KO for many years, and even though the choices may change as the English department evolves and grows, it doesn’t seem like they are going anywhere. In fact, it seems as though there are endless possibilities waiting to be explored by the English faculty and years of eager students to come.