By Kim Siebert MacPhail
Elective or “Choice” courses at John Glenn Middle School (JGMS) are intended to offer opportunities for students to explore areas of interest not strictly tied to the curriculum content that will appear on the MCAS or other high-stakes tests. In the years between elementary school and high school, where recess time is no longer allotted, Choice classes were created to accommodate the middle school developmental level, walking the line between providing “down time” and giving up the structure that makes for a productive learning environment.
As well-intentioned as Choice classes were, in actuality they have long been known as a source of frustration for many students, teachers and parents.
So it was that the subject of Choice classes was one of the first that new JGMS Middle School Principal Kevin Tracey was asked to address when he was tapped for the job. At the School Committee meeting this Tuesday night, Tracey related how this came about:
“It was right after my appointment. Dr. LaCroix (then Superintendent of Schools), called me into her office and said, ‘You may want to take a look at [Choice] courses and what is specifically being offered.’
“Fast forward to last spring,” he continued, “and I attended a fifth grade parent night. After [the classes] were described to the then-fifth-grade/incoming-sixth-grade parents, a parent raised her hand and asked, ‘Why do you call them Choice classes if there’s pretty much a guarantee the students won’t get the choice they requested?’”
So, Tracey said, when he started his tenure as principal, he began talking to more parents about Choice classes, which include Art, Music, Physical Education, and Life Skills. He spoke also with the faculty at the middle school— most specifically the Arts/Wellness staff, who have had a long-standing interest in sorting out the problem
In the fall, once school resumed and the process for assigning students to the Choice classes began, Tracey said one of the biggest issues parents contacted the school about was switching their child’s Choice assignment.
“I think there is a value in what we offer now,” Tracey said. “I think there’s a value in [something like] Babysitting. There’s a value in Yoga. But what ends up happening is that, when you look at the students that populate the course, not only are they not in the classes that they requested, but they also have become divided by gender, and it becomes an issue. You may have a student that really wanted Lego Robotics but ended up in Yoga. It may be nice to push students out of their comfort zones, and we also want to make sure that we give them an opportunity to discover a hidden passion or interest, but not to stick pins in him or her for a semester.”
Tracey said that the Arts/Wellness faculty wanted to find a way to create a “more uniform opportunity across the three grades” that would minimize the sense that there were winners and losers in the Choice course placement lottery. They also wanted to ensure that students were exposed to different subject areas during the year, as well as over the three years they were at JGMS.
Conceptually, the faculty looked at Choice offerings as a way to enrich already-existing core curriculum offerings. With that in mind, they developed a new group of grade-specific Choice course offerings that include, for example, classes such as “Explorations in Art—Mediums, Tools and Techniques” (grade 6); “Court Games and Movement” (grade 7); Technology Education Exploration (grade 7); and Theater Arts (grade 8). Tracey said the number of sections for each course would be determined by the number of requests.
“The way the courses are designed,” Tracey said, “it is a grade 6 to grade 8 view of a curriculum, which is intentional, so that those students [who choose to] would be able to take [the physical education option] in grades 6,7, and 8 [but the curriculum within that area changes from grade to grade.] That being said, they can’t take Physical Education 6 [during the] first term and Physical Education 6 [during the] second term. By default, they are going to have [to have another area of] experience besides their first choice.”
Tracey also addressed the issue of students who opt for chorus, band, or orchestra, saying they will still be assured of one other Choice period per six-day cycle.
I am glad to see there may be elective options for kids who take an instrument or participate in chorus. During my older daughter’s tenure at JGMS, it was a given that if you took chorus or orchestra you would not get any other electives. There are kids I know who specifically opted out of chorus because they wanted to take electives, which doesn’t benefit the music program. That said, I was not impressed with many of the past elective offerings and hope to see some improvements next year when my younger daughter begins middle school.