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Trio of teachers reinvent AP English

Relying on each other to sharpen their ideas, Adamson, Olson and Wood embrace new challenges.

Janssen Transier

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Tom Watterson taught AP English Literature to seniors in Room 110 for 12 years. It would have been a challenge for any one teacher to replace him, so language arts department chair Diana Adamson knew from the beginning that she wasn’t going to replace Watterson with one teacher.

And it’s not just because Mr. Watterson’s shoes are tough to fill. Adamson believes that having at least two teachers at every level of English is vital to the success of the program.

“It’s important to have someone to bounce ideas off of; it really improves the curriculum,” Adamson said.

As head of the department, Adamson is responsible for assigning teachers to the subjects they teach.

“Everyone in the department is pretty happy where they are, because I try really hard to let everyone teach what they want to teach,” Adamson said.

In addition to teaching Pre-AP English and junior OnRamps English, Diana Adamson is teaching AP English IV this year. -Photo by Janssen Transier

After Mr. Watterson left his position teaching English 4 last year, the first person Adamson approached about filling the gap Watterson left was Jennifer Wood. Adamson thought that it would be a good fit for Wood, because she had taught freshman and sophomore English, and teaching AP English to seniors would let her see how much those kids she had previously taught have grown over the years. Wood has been teaching at McCallum for just three years, but her entire teaching career spans 21 years. Before Wood was at McCallum, she taught advanced English at Vandergrift.

“Teaching Pre-AP English I was a bit of an adjustment for me because it’s a surprisingly difficult class to teach; I’ve had a lot of students say it’s their hardest year of English,” Wood said.

Wood was just getting used to teaching freshmen when Adamson approached her about teaching AP English IV.

“I was really interested in doing it because it was a new challenge,” Wood said.

Wood agreed to teach AP English IV, and she says from there, it’s been a learning process for her. She has been trying to adjust her teaching style to a more relaxed attitude because she feels like with seniors “you don’t have to work as hard; you don’t have to break everything down as much.”
Wood explains that even though her teaching style is much different than Mr. Watterson’s, she’s confident in her abilities as a teacher.

“I feel like Mr. Watterson was very much an entertainer, and that’s just not me,” Wood said. “I’m much more curriculum-driven. It is important to me that the curriculum is driving the class, and sometimes it’s hard to just let myself be enough.”

The main challenge for Wood, she says, is adapting Watterson’s curriculum for her own class.“I can’t just take someone’s curriculum and say, ‘OK, I’m ready’; there’s a lot more to it than that. I have to really make it my own,” Wood said, “so it’s challenging to make sure that everything is getting out to the students on time, while also staying in line with everything that Ms. Adamson and Ms. Olson are doing.”

Overall, Wood is happy with the class, and she feels like it’s a good opportunity to improve the program.

“Having at least two teachers teaching AP English IV is really ideal,” she said. “We can bounce ideas off each other, and it makes it overall a better class.”

The next person Ms. Adamson approached to teach AP English IV was third-year McCallum teacher Dana Olson.

“I thought it would be a good fit for Ms. Olson, because she’s a new teacher, she’s very young, and if she decides later on that she wants to teach somewhere else, it’s good to be as diverse as possible,” Adamson said.

“Every day is better. And anyways, it was about time for AP to reinvent itself.””

— Jennifer Wood

Like any teacher taking on a new course and curriculum, Olson is adjusting.

“A big thing that Mr. Watterson told me to do was not reinvent the wheel,” Olson said. “He gave us all his stuff, so he said to just do what he did the first year, then next year start working your own curriculum into it.”

Olson agreed with Wood that it’s not that simple because executing another teacher’s lessons without adapting them is a recipe for teaching that does not work.

“I really need to make it my own because in my experience so far, the lessons that I just copy from someone else and try and make it work, those are always my worst lessons.”

While there are some challenges that come with teaching a new class, Olson said that she’s still enjoying the experience.

“It’s a lot of fun because the kids are really smart, and I taught a lot of them as sophomores, so it’s really nice to see how they have grown,” she said.

As usually happens with such a big change, there were some bumps along the way.

Last year, a small group of English students participated in a new program through the University of Texas, a dual-credit opportunity called OnRamps.

Dana Olson and Jennifer Wood, both third year teachers at McCallum, have taken on AP IV this year.
Photo by Janssen Transier.

In OnRamps, students participate in a separate curriculum, and get the same college credit as AP students, but without having to take a test at the end of the year. Students who had taken OnRamps English were planning to take OnRamps English II, but when school started, they found that there was no OnRamps English class for seniors and that they would be forced to take AP English IV instead.

The teachers were just as surprised as the students; Olson said she didn’t know she was going to have OnRamps students until the first day of school.

“It threw a lot of stuff off because the first few weeks of school are centered around the summer reading, and the OnRamps kids had read a completely different book over the summer,” Olson said.

Senior Rylie Jones took OnRamps English last year, and says it was a great experience. “It helped me improve my writing a lot, and Ms. Adamson was a really good fit for the class,” Jones said. “It is challenging to be in an AP class after taking OnRamps, because they learned really different stuff than us, like how to write an essay for the AP test. So it is really difficult, but I still enjoy the class, because I have Ms. Olson, and I had her as a sophomore so it’s really nice to have her again.”

Senior Skel Gracie agrees that there has definitely been some frustration surrounding the mixed class of OnRamps and AP students, but the teachers have been doing a great job of adapting.

“I have Ms. Adamson, so she has us do things like writing practice with different prompts depending on what book we read,” Gracie said.
Ms. Wood agrees that it’s been a stressful period of transition for both the teachers and the students, but says that it’s improving as time goes on.

“It’s better every day, and I’ve allowed the kids who were in OnRamps to go through that period of frustration, but I can tell they are starting to adapt,” Wood says.

Despite the challenges that are facing the group of new AP English IV teachers, they are quickly making the transition and have high hopes for the future.

“Every day is better,” Wood said. “And anyways, it was about time for AP to reinvent itself.”

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2 Responses to “Trio of teachers reinvent AP English”

  1. Cohen Johnson-Dye on October 4th, 2018 9:54 am

    It’s a really interesting idea to have two teachers for English that are able to build off of each other’s ideas – I agree. The creativity of the teachers at McCallum shows just how good of a school we are.

  2. Chloe Gerais on October 5th, 2018 3:45 pm

    It’s really great that McCallum has groups of teachers to discuss ideas and topics or projects together to find what is best for their students and bounce ideas of each other that they have used in the pass. It also makes a better style or standard of learning/education for their students.

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