As a homeschool mother I often hear about the experiences of other families with public school. One of the more striking differences is how English literature and language are approached. I greatly valued the experience my daughter had with her online classical school for Grade 9 English, and I gaped at the contrast that I hear from her friends, who completed this course in public school. I wondered what the official Ontario curriculum proscribed for academic English study in Grade 9 and summarized some aspects that struck me below. (Please note that I have no connection to CLRC, apart from my daughter having taken the class, and receive not benefit from this comparison).
The Public School:
Starting Your Journey
The Ontario Curriculum for Grade 9 English (Academic) states that it aims to develop “skills that students will need for success in their secondary school academic programs”. For ease of comparison, I focused on the ‘Reading and Literature Studies’ and ‘Writing’ section, but the curriculum also includes a oral communication and media studies component. Here is a selection of examples which are representative of the overall expectations discussed in the document.
You can find the entire Ontario curriculum document here.
- Students are to choose one book to read during the year
- teacher provides a variety of ‘selected texts’: “e.g. compare the portrayal of adolescent issues in two short stories from different cultures; identify the theme of a Young Adult novel for book club discussion; compare two newspaper articles on the same topic”
- Analysing Texts – Teacher prompts: “Which of the letters to the editor in today’s paper do you disagree with? Why?”
- Critical Literacy – Teacher prompts: “How is the plot of this Young Adult novel gendered? Is the plot resolved form them in a traditional marriage? What voices are missing, silenced, or discounted..?”
- Overall goal for vocabulary development:
- automatically understanding most words in different reading contexts “e.g. slang and jargon in a magazine report on teen trends.”
- Teacher prompts: “What are some of the words from your vocabulary that you first learned from television or the Internet?”
- Students learn to write for different purposes and audiences “e.g. a comic strip based on a scene from a short story; text for trading cards of mythological figures to share with friends…”
- Instructors avoid the use of the word ‘essay’ when talking about writing but rather refer to ‘a series of ordered paragraphs’. The word ‘essay’ is also noticeably absent in the grade 9 English curriculum document.
What was most striking in reviewing the Grade 9 English document, was the focus on the student’s own experience, opinions, feelings, and interests. There is nothing inherently wrong with that; however, might a sociology, psychology, or personal development class be a more suitable choice to ‘explore the self’ than an academic English class?
Importantly, students still have to spend a considerable amount of time working on their assignments; however, the content is often focused on reflections, opinions, and experiences rather than textual analysis and developing competency in academic writing.
Online Classical School:
A Journey through Masterpieces
The Classical Learning Resource Centre offers a profoundly different curriculum for students in Grade 9 English. Students here are also told that they will embark on a journey, but in contrast to the Ontario curriculum which sends students on a journey to explore the ‘self’, instructors at CLRC offer the following:
From the Medieval warrior epic Beowulf, to the complex introspection of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, to the subtle humor of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, to the existential struggles of modernism and post-modernism, British literature students journey from the beginning to the end of the English language’s greatest masterpieces.
You can find the entire course description the CLRC’s website here.
Books read (in full) include:
- Hamlet by William Shakespeare
- The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde
- Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
- Great Expectations by Charles Dickens
- Animal Farm by George Orwell
- Paradise lost (selections) by John Milton
- Much Ado About Nothing by William Shakespeare
- Handbook of Literature
- Strunk and White Elements of Style
- Students are expected to learn unfamiliar vocabulary in the texts
- Students write weekly guided responses to their assigned readings
- Weekly discussions examine themes that continue from Beowulf to the present day, as well as exposing students to the historical and cultural context of their assignments.
- Writing assignments focus closely on analysis
- Students write 3 persuasive essays using MLA style
- Students use the Handbook of Literature to help them with text analysis
- Students use Strunk and White Elements of Style to master writing conventions
- Weekly grammar lessons cover and review essential parts of speech and sentence structure with the Stewart English Program Grammar Workbook
This Grade 9 English course uses some of the greatest masterpieces of English literature to teach students about the development of writing styles, textual conventions, language use, argumentation etc. Rather than using the ‘self’ as a starting and endpoint, literature itself is the focus. Through this process students are prepared for analysis and critical examination of texts as well as academic writing tasks essential for post-secondary study.
Which Journey Will You Choose?
The comparison between these two Grade 9 English courses is striking. One focuses on the student and contemporary values teaching, while the other teaches great masterpieces of literature. I realize that classical literature is not everyone’s cup of tea, but if you want to build muscles at the gym you need to do the heavy lifting, not just admire yourself in the mirror.
But in reading great literature I become a thousand men and yet remain myself. Like a night sky in the Greek poem, I see with a myriad eyes, but it is still I who see. Here, as in worship, in love, in moral action, and in knowing, I transcend myself; and am never more myself than when I do.C.S.Lewis