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“Exploration and expression”

How a Strategic Approach to Writing Prepares Ravens for Success

By Karen Lewis Taylor | Back to Table of Contents

 


UPPER SCHOOL: Empowering and inspiring real-world writers

 

“We honor that it’s hard”

From their earliest months in the Upper School, Ravens hear a consistent message from teachers, advisors and college counselors: we’re preparing you for college and what comes after. For faculty in the English Department, that means encouraging students to push themselves as critical thinkers, readers and writers.

“Students come to us from the Middle School having engaged with rigorous, challenging literature. They are prepared to do high-level work,” English Department chair Cy League said. “Their feelings about writing [at this level] may vary, but most are receptive to the mind-set of writing’s value — especially if we honor the fact that it’s hard.”

Director of Library Services Angela Finn introduces students to the resources available through the Keim Center library in this photo from Fall 2019.


As students tackle writing topics that are increasingly abstract and, often, built on their own interpretation of literature, teachers continue to emphasize the writing process while building what department member Joel Karpowitz called “a strong critical eye and a formal writing voice.”

“Our primary purpose is to teach students how to communicate effectively,” he noted. “Much of the attention in core English classes falls on the technical tools and traits required for analytical writing.”

“We stress clear, persuasive organization. We stress a logical progression of arguments. We stress clear, relevant, well-chosen and smoothly incorporated textual evidence, either from the novel or a piece of secondary analysis,” League added. “By 10th and 11th grade, we tend to think those skills are pretty well in place.”

Students in Kevin Flinn’s English IV Postmodern Literature class discuss an upcoming assignment in this photo from Spring 2018.

 

The composition requirement

Students get an extra boost of instruction and practice when they take — as a graduation requirement in addition to their core English classes — either the semester-long Composition course or the yearlong Advanced Placement English Language and Composition course. Composition is typically offered to students in 11th grade but is also available to sophomores enrolled in Honors English II as well as to seniors. The Advanced Placement course — known familiarly as “AP Lang” — is open to recommended students in 11th and 12th grades.

“Composition can be an important class for students who aren’t super-confident as writers,” League explained. “It provides a natural, organic transition, as they start off writing about their own experiences. Some students are really good at memory essays — they have this natural voice that comes through. It gives them the chance to explore becoming smoother, more fluid writers, and then they can get into research papers and persuasive essays.”

For students who truly relish opportunities to write, AP Lang is a rigorous choice.

“I frequently tell my AP Lang classes that they’re taking the highest-level writing course Ravenscroft offers and that a seriousness of purpose when approaching writing is essential,” teacher Kevin Flinn said. “AP Lang is for writers. They know all, or at least most, of the rules of grammar and usage at this point. I urge them now to break those rules in ways that elevate their personal voice.”

These courses’ focus on upper-level writing, English teacher Colby Bogie said, “resembles the introductory academic writing class that many colleges require their freshmen to take. The department takes great pride in the fact that our graduates consistently report feeling much better prepared for their college essays than their peers.”

As seniors, Ravens choose between the yearlong Advanced Placement English Literature and Composition or semester-long courses built around thematic topics such as Twentieth-Century American Drama or Film Adaptation. These classes involve synthesizing writing assignments such as research papers.

Colby Bogie discusses the significance of quotations from the dystopian novel “1984” with his English IV Science Fiction class.

 

“Entirely transferable” skills

Of course, opportunities to dig into and write about interesting topics aren’t limited to core English classes. In other courses across the Upper School, Ravenscroft students build and refine their skills in information-gathering, analysis and composition as they prepare for a future in which good communication is an essential competency.

Mark Laskowski, who chairs the Upper School History and Social Studies Department, acknowledged “a tremendous debt of gratitude to our friends in the English Department for working so hard to help students develop their research, reasoning and formal writing skills.

“One constant in each history and social studies class is refining the ability to make arguments and support positions with evidence. Students need to be able to examine and analyze information and use it to build and sustain complex arguments,” he said. “These skills are entirely transferable, and students are able to put them into practice across all levels.”

He noted as an example the “Big Dig” research project undertaken by students in Phil Kantaros’ Advanced Studies in Government & Politics course. Students choose from a range of contemporary topics that affect their community and do in-depth investigation and analysis for their papers, which are comparable to college-level assignments.

Social studies teacher Phil Kantaros has his students in Advanced Studies in Government & Politics do a major research paper, dubbed the “Big Dig,” as a capstone project.


Students can also flex their abilities in a number of electives. The English Department offers courses in journalism and creative writing, for example, that allow passionate writers to explore new forms and outlets for their work.

English teacher Tomeiko Carter teaches several media-focused electives, including — with Director of Global Programs Jessica Yonzon — the interdisciplinary Honors Digital Media for Global Learning. She said journalism courses “rely on the imagination and creativity of students through photography, layout and video production. Students provide evidence of their growth through tangible products such as investigative news stories, features, editorials, podcasts, blogs and more.

“I want them to understand that journalism is a natural outlet for the communication skills they develop in English classes. Writing compelling, well-presented and balanced news stories, in many ways, follows the logical progression and thought processes of well-argued essays,” she said.

Creative Writing, Karpowitz explained, is “one of a handful of classes specifically designed to allow students to just play with language and write in a way that excites them. It’s really fun to see the range of work students produce — poetry and short stories but also children’s books, screenplays and songs. I’ve never had a semester teaching this class that didn’t leave me impressed and excited by the quality of writing Ravenscroft students produce.”

For Bogie, who teaches several core classes, the popularity of such electives underscores another reason why good writing instruction is so important.

“I try not to lose sight of the broader context of writing as a form of exploration and expression,” he said. “I hope that my students are able to learn about themselves and about the world and grow in self-confidence as a result of their writing in my class.”

Third-Grader Changed Her World With Persuasive Essay

Back in 2015, then-third-grader Jane McNeill ’24 had a job to do. As part of her class’s introduction to persuasive writing, she needed to plan and write an essay urging action on a topic she felt passionate about. As she recalls today, it didn’t take her long to find inspiration:

It took me a minute, and then I knew: our third- and fourth-grade center’s water fountains. Among my favorite Lower School memories are the frequent games of recess soccer. Everyone played, everyone laughed, everyone tried. Picture a majority of the third grade all chasing after one small ball. It was the frequent, recurring problem that happened when recess was over that prompted my essay. There were only three water fountains for what seemed like an endless number of tired, sweaty, thirsty kids. I chose to write about the need for more water fountains, how new water fountains would allow one student to drink while the other refilled a water bottle, and how refilling water bottles would help the environment.

Jane McNeill ’24


Jane’s teacher, Tracy Rogers, was so impressed by the essay, “We Need More Water Fountains,” that she shared it with then-Head of Lower School Payton Hobbs, who passed it along to Director of Buildings & Grounds Chris Farrow. As a proud supporter of the school’s Lead From Here citizen leadership framework, Farrow knew that Jane’s proposal could make a difference in the Lower School. While he and Leonard Johnson, Associate Head of School for Business & Finance, knew their budget didn’t support a new installation, Johnson concluded, “We need to get this girl a water fountain!”

Here’s Farrow’s account of what happened next:

I reached out to Cecil Davis Jr. of Cecil Davis Plumbing, who asked if he could have a copy of the essay. After a few weeks, he stopped by my office and left me an envelope. Inside the envelope were the specs of a water fountain with a bottle-filling station and a note that said not to worry —  he had shared Jane’s essay with his supplier, and now the manufacturer, the wholesaler, the retailer and his business were all contributing toward the new water fountain. It would be installed before the end of the school year at no cost to the school.

In this archival photo from May 2015, Jane excitedly cuts the ribbon on the Lower School’s new water fountain.


In a news alert that went out on May 29, 2015, the communications office shared Jane’s story, along with photos from a ribbon-cutting ceremony in the Lower School.

“The Ravenscroft community had truly come together!” Jane says today. “I was astonished at the impact my words had had. I had changed my world. I undoubtedly had help, but I also took a lot away from that lesson: one person really is capable of making a difference.”

Today, as our resilient Lower School students follow the school’s COVID-mitigation strategies, which include not using the drinking spouts on the division’s water fountains, the bottle-filling station is more important than ever. Jane’s initiative is giving back in ways no one could have predicted at the time.

Director of Buildings & Grounds Chris Farrow and Head of School Doreen Kelly pose with Jane after the ribbon-cutting ceremony in May 2015.

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From the Archives

At top, Teddy Hauck concentrates on his writing, an emerging skill for four- and five-year olds, in this photo from Laura Coffey’s 2019-20 kindergarten classroom.