English Department at Berkeley High

Archived Q&A and Reviews



Senior: AP English or Creative Writing?

April 2001

My daughter is a junior at BHS and is wondering whether she should take AP English or Creative Writing in her senior year. She loves writing, but has not had the opportunity for as much writing as she would like and has not received much feedback from her English and history teachers on what she has written. She feels pressure to take more AP classes (so far she's taken AP Bio, Spanish and honors math and won't take AP science next year), but doesn't know about the quality of the AP English teachers and what the class would be like. Basically, her heart says "creative writing" but her practical side is saying "AP English." At this point in time, she is planning to apply to smaller liberal arts colleges/universities. I would appreciate hearing about experiences with AP English and creative writing at Berkeley High. I'd also like to know what people think of the importance of having AP English as opposed to creative writing, in terms of how colleges would view her transcript.

With my daughter a senior and graduating soon, I feel more free to criticize some of BHS's teachers (she had two good English teachers in her four years). However, I would advise your daughter take creative writing somewhere else. If she loves writing, she should sign up for a community college class, or a UCB Extension class, not take Creative Writing at BHS. I feel the BHS English Department can barely provide functional guidance in English, let alone be creative about it. Some of my criticism must be tempered with the fact that English in the first three years at BHS is remedial for many children, and so the best writers lose out somewhat, but I'm not going there. It would be far better to go into an AP English class for practical reasons -- colleges will look to how many AP/Honors courses your child has taken when deciding on whether to admit her, and a competitive edge goes to those who have taken more AP/Honors courses. --jahlee

English classes are not rigorous enough

Oct 1999

I would like to initiate a discussion about the quality of the English education at BHS. Semester after semester both of my children have had sub-standard instruction that includes pathetically little writing. There are some fabulous teachers which my kids never seemed to get and then a good dose of burned-out, stressed-out ones. (2 semesters out of the cumulative 11 we've been at BHS were with excellent instruction.) In all of last school year one child never received a single piece of written work back with corrections. He did get back all the art work that comprised the majority of the assignments. My other child had the same teacher several years back and never got back any essay with corrections either. In many ways both my children have had a high quality, invaluable experience at BHS with many rewards including the struggles overcome and not overcome. I'd like to see us as parents work together with the school to raise the level of instruction either by raising the standards, getting rid of some of the poor quality teachers, offering an honors class for those particularly gifted or motivated to read and write at a high level (not just the too few sections of12th grade AP, but throughout the years). I wonder, like the parent chagrined about her daughter's low Chem SAT2 score, how many BHS kids score 5's on the AP exam (the top score) and how they do on the Writing SAT2 with such poor preparation. The fact that no AP history is offered, no honors sections of English are offered is tragic for exceptional non-science/math students. (Thank goodness those kids can still take math and science at an appropriately challenging level.) I believe the bar is too low for many and sadly too high for just as many. I'd like to hear from other parents about your experiences and any ideas for change.- Anonymous

Nov 1999

My son is in his second year on Berkeley High. He has not yet had a long paper in any of his classes. In Middle School he had to do longer (over 10 pages) papers with bibliographies etc. At BHS his English assignments consist of paragraphs and his history classes have not had a paper yet, simply vocabulary. His last year's English teacher told me she hoped he would be able to write more in this year's English, but no longer writing assignments appear on the horizon. I would second the writers who suggested that BHS needs some honors English and history classes. Berkeley seems to not meet the needs of students who already have some writing and research skills.

In response to English at BHS... The reason English classes are not separated into skill level much like Math classes are, is because they feel it segregates the kids. It does, lets face it. I too wish that I could be in a class that was at my skill level. When a teacher is only able to teach a small range of material because of the large range of skill level, it puts everybody in a rut. I'm finding several of my teachers to be horrendous snoozers, as someone said before, 'they're burned out'. Not to say that being older causes it, just that these teachers don't enjoy teaching any longer. Another problem is the classes being large. I don't think the teachers have time to correct our papers. Definitely a few must be very reluctant to make the effort, but that is probably a minor reason.

Jan 2000

I am writing for two reasons. First, I want to thank the dozens of parents and students who wrote to me of their concerns and suggestions about the English instruction at the high school. I am organizing the data and intend to present it to the principal, department chair and the board when I'm done. I'll be asking for some assistance from volunteers as the process continues. I also am considering writing a BSEP proposal to implement some of the fine suggestions I received.

Before I continue, however, I want to have some input from the teachers in the English department. So, Teacher X, since you spoke up, if you're willing I'd welcome your answer to the question I posed to parents: what are y our 5 primary concerns about the English instruction, whether it be regarding curriculum, length of period, class size, low teacher pay, low recognition of dedicated teacher's hard work, poor parent-teacher interface/support, thoughts about the pros and cons of heterogenous or homogeneous classes or anything else AND what suggestions do you have to remedy some of these problems? What's been tried and with what result, what new paths are out there?

I am most interested in opening a dialogue about a situation that has been problematic for years to both teachers and parents/kids and people have whined and complained about with no change. I certainly don't hold the teachers responsible for what I think to be a complex and thorny problem. Easy problems are the ones that get solved easily. This is not easy. I don't want to form hasty conclusions that are just based on the wishes of parents or students in a vacuum. I hope you can help me by letting me know what you think and hopefully acting as a conduit for the opinions and ideas of your peers in the department.

One correspondent wrote, "Perhaps the BHS English curriculum does not include vocab, but I bet it doesn't include drawing either." My daughter's English teacher gives vocabulary tests, but both she and the history teacher like work decorated with little drawings or attractive borders. I am horrified. I understand the desire to have neat work, but drawing is grade-school stuff. That part of my daughter's grade depends on little pictures or cutesy decorations is shocking.

I would like to open this with a ditto of what many have brought up in the Nov 9th newsletter- BHS is in many ways an exciting and dynamic school. We are in our 6th consecutive year and never have I thought I should have sent either of my children elsewhere. Between the two of them we've been involved with the exceptional music program, the rigorous and near college level Latin track, two other foreign languages, the Language Exchange (an ESL Partners program), JV and Varsity sports and LitMag. One child had the good fortune to be in Mr. Teel's model congress, we were introduced to the Amigos program which sent my child twice to work in Latin America doing public health work. Both have learned to be competent math students starting in kindergarten and all the way through the public school system. They learned to write respectable research papers. My older child graduated with 4 AP classes worth of college credit and is thriving at a demanding college. Both formed rich and personal relationships with many of their fine teachers through the years and have forged deep friendships with their peers. Additionally, they learned how to thrive in a system that hands very little over on a silver platter. They've been educated in a mult-cultural/multi-ethnic environment where people of varying skills, disparate economic situations and levels of motivation come together to learn. In other words, the real world. We are very grateful for what Berkeley High has offered.

On the down side, my main area of concern, the place I have tried to create change, have spoken over and over with teachers, students, three different principals, vice-principals, and the department chair is English. It is November and my 10th grader has written one 5 paragraph essay. Period. He has learned a great deal of vocabulary, which I think is crucial, has taken many many quizzes and has read a variety of books but writing is de-emphasized. His next assignment, to accompany the reading of Siddhartha is an art project. I go through the roof with the "art as English" bit. Often, BHS kids get to college and few can write competently. They can make a dandy book cover, though. And a poster, too! Many parents I know have hired writing coaches and tutors through the H.S. years to make up for what's missing. I have edited at least a hundred BHS student's college essays over the years and I am appalled every year at how few of them can express a thought clearly and concisely without massive numbers of clichis and a wealth of poorly constructed ideas that are not well substantiated by cogent arguments.

I think that there is power in numbers. I'd like to see more parents speak up about this, because I know this is a widespread concern. I wrote in an earlier newsletter about my dismay with the English Department in hopes of opening some more extensive discussion. I am aware that not every teacher in any department can be exceptional but unfortunately so many kids are not being served the way things are. My older son had only 3 semesters out of 8, 2 with Mr. Valtz, who is no longer at BHS and one with Mr. Bye, who fortunately is, that I would consider adequate preparation for college. The rest were posters, masks, banners, book covers and an occasional short essay which was never returned with a grade. Oh- there was one term where he wrote a decent essay and the teacher gave him a double A: two essays worth of "A" credit for 1 paper with the comment "reading something like this warms this old English teacher's heart".

Currently my child spends a good part of each English class reading the next day's assigned reading- per the teacher's instruction. We're not talking about reading from boredom. That's all that they all do for the last 20 minutes of some classes. Let's look for something more rigorous to go on here. I'd like to hear from others and perhaps set up a meeting with Mr. Hassett, the chair, and Ms. Saunders to talk about how to raise the bar.

I have received many emails regarding my post about the English curriculum. I invite others to contact me if you are interested in doing something. I am delighted to hear people speaking up. It is my intention to form a committee with as many concerned parents as I can get. My desire is to initiate an honest dialogue with Ms. Saunders and Mr. Hassett about the ups and downs of English at BHS. Not for the purpose of getting it off our chests, however. I'm interested in some real changes. I'm tired of personally taking it up with my child's teacher term after term. We've been through 7 teachers and I've been in every term raising my concerns and worrying my child will be penalized because I'm complaining. Mike Hassett and I have talked so many times about this that I feel like we're old friends. I don't think this is simply an issue that will be solved by adding more AP classes. I'm just as worried about the kids who are floundering at the middle and low end. Across the board students are being educated at the lowest possible level. The talented ones still sparkle by comparision, but they don't flourish. Of course, there are exceptional classrooms and exceptional teachers. But sadly, I believe most of the teachers have too many students and/or insufficient training in how to teach a curriculum strong in writing without having to spend their every spare moment reading and grading essays. I believe that's why some of these art projects are assigned. Some are fun and creative and can bring the material alive. But it's the end of November and I'd like to see more than one 5 paragraph essay (which still isn't returned with comments) assigned in a 10th grade class. I can put in the time and have the ability to teach my children to write. Not every child has that.