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Subject Spotlight: Language Arts @ DA
By Dylan Howlett

In the 1983 comedy A Christmas Story, Ralphie Parker finds himself suffused with purpose: to acquire, by Christmas morning, a long-coveted Red Ryder BB gun, the item around which this particular season of his childhood has revolved. But the young boy also finds himself bereft of an audience. He has made, with the kind of clumsiness foretold by prepubescent exuberance, several failed overtures to his parents, who have rebuffed his hints both subtle and overt. He doesn’t appear to have an ally in Mrs. Shields, the officious and good-natured teacher of his fifth-grade class, who stands before her students one day with homework on her mind.

“Now, boys and girls, I’m going to give you an assignment,” Mrs. Shields says. “I want you to write... a theme.” The proclamation elicits a chorus of groans. But Ralphie smiles wide when he sees the nature of the assignment written in immaculate cursive on the chalkboard: What I Want For Christmas. He has found his audience. The same afternoon, at the wooden desk in his bedroom, Ralphie clutches a piece of lined paper as he admires his completed magnum opus. What I want for Christmas is a Red Ryder BB gun with a compass in the stock and this thing which tells time. He chuckles in amazement, as voiced by his adult self in the form of narrator Jean Shepherd: “Rarely had the words poured from my penny pencil with such feverish fluidity.”

He would have fit right in at Durham Academy, where the language arts ask students to consider, always, the value of a well-timed message.

“It’s really about helping them understand that when they’re communicating, they have to think about purpose, they have to think about audience,” said Associate Head of School Kristen Klein. “They need to be flexible in the ways they can shift their approaches for lots of different purposes, lots of different pieces.”

The school’s language arts “transfer goals” — the replicable skills that students should carry with them from grade level to grade level — are broad, Klein says, by design. DA nurtures lifelong readers, and practitioners of open-ended questions, and persuasive communicators. But the transfer goals speak with unambiguous commitment to the most universal power of literature: the ability to foster empathy, and human connection.

“We view English and language arts as something that goes beyond utility,” says Klein, who taught AP English Literature and Composition for 15 years. “It’s not just utilitarian communication. We really see the study of literature and the creation of written text to be part of what makes us human and part of what feeds our humanity. We’re really trying to keep that piece alive in our approach.”

It is, indeed, alive. This week, the Marketing & Communications team visited four classrooms, one in each of DA’s divisions, where future generations of authors, book publishers, orators, editors and social commentators are finding their purpose and audience. It is the second of many Subject Spotlights, which kicked off in September with a feature on math, that will appear in News & Notes during the 2023–2024 academic year to showcase the everyday brilliance of our kids and educators. 

Welcome to Language Arts at DA. Come find your purpose, lead with empathy and seek out your audience. We triple-dog-dare ya.


 

Kindergarten — Elizabeth Parry & Allison Schenck’s Classroom

Kindergarten teacher Elizabeth Parry ’13 gives a knowing glance to the Koalas, a kindergarten class filled with burgeoning storytellers. By now, they’ve known their charge for several days: Craft a story, either fiction or nonfiction, that features a compelling, colorful cover and a precise title. The story ideas crackle with the joys of lived experiences: going to McDonald’s with your family, “things I can do,” a nighttime stroll beneath the stars at the beach. One of the kindergarten storytellers, Niam, can’t wait to tell his story — going on a walk with dad — to his family. “They’re gonna be so surprised when they find out,” Niam said. “They’re gonna be like: Ahhhhhh!”

The Koalas will soon embark on today’s edition of Writers’ Workshop, the Lower School’s composition program built on direct, skill-based instruction, collaboration and dedicated writing time, which allows teachers to hold one-on-one conferences with as many students as possible.

The Koalas should focus their energy, Parry says, on finishing their book covers with flourishes of color and adding vowels where necessary to words in their title. A writer’s work, after all, never ends. The class breaks into one of their most cherished mantras, sung to the tune of “If You’re Happy And You Know It (Clap Your Hands)”: When you think you’re done, you’ve just begun (CLAP-CLAP).

The Koalas disperse, and Room 113 soon fills with a cacophony that resembles a newsroom or publisher’s house. Teaching assistant Allison Schenck repairs to her workspace at the back of her classroom — her “editor’s desk,” she says to the class — and beckons students who are closer to finishing. “You should be able to look at a cover and know exactly what the book is about,” Schenck says to a student writing about his family outing to McDonald’s. Together, they brainstorm a possible symbol — the golden arches — that he could add to the cover. 

Another student appears at Schenck’s desk looking for help with the spelling of “starfish,” and they sound out vowels until they’ve found the “a” and “i” they need. Parry circulates between several clusters of students and gives targeted feedback on their covers and titles. “Think about if there are any more labels you can add,” she says, and a student eagerly returns to his page. Another student scrawls an “a” across her page and scrunches her face. “Does this look like a lowercase ‘a’ to you?” she asks her seating partner. He springs out of his seat and examines her paper closely. She would benefit, he says, from a “teensy-weensy” change. Only the arrival of music class can puncture the rapture of the budding authors and book designers, who will resume their cover tweaks in the coming days.

“We’re gonna work on this some more,” Schenck says. 

The response is unanimous. “Yay!” the Koalas say, with the reassurance of seasoned writers delighted by the prospect that their work has just begun.

 

 


 

Fourth Grade — Lauren Miller, Chris Mason and Jay Dillon’s Classroom

A hush falls over the Mustangs, who look at fourth-grade teacher Lauren Miller with the anticipation that their young lives might change forever. Today the Mustangs’ respective book clubs — split among five “just right” titles that serve differentiated reading levels — will convene for the first time to craft their group’s reading plans. They’ll gather six times before their due date of Nov. 13, and they’ll spend the next half-hour determining the number of chapters they’ll read before each meeting. 

Until now, that task has been the exclusive purview of their classroom teachers. But Miller reminds them their preparations for middle school have already started. These plans will simulate the self-pacing and autonomy required of middle school learners, she says, and taking control over how much reading they’ll complete on a nightly basis serves as an indispensable part of a lifelong reader’s journey.

“Big stuff, huh?” Miller says. Big stuff, a student whispers in audible wonderment.

The newly formed clubs stake out their spaces across the room, with one group opting for high-top seating at the back of the room and another group eagerly splaying across the carpet near Miller’s desk. The plans require some compromise: Each group member must record and adhere to the same reading plan and the same pace. Empathy abounds across the titles. One book features the story of a girl with autism who goes searching for her lost dog (Reign Rain by Ann M. Martin), and another tells the tale of unexpected friendships forged among middle schoolers when one of them gets trapped in a well (2017 Newbery Award winner Hello, Universe by Erin Entrada Kelly). That is precisely why DA invests in a culture of lifelong reading.

“It’s really all about building empathy and perspective-taking,” Klein says. “Literature remains one of the very best ways to help students — to help humans — understand perspectives and experiences that we haven’t had in real, deep ways that enable human empathy and connection. That’s why we’re still in the literature game.”

Once the clubs have set their course for the next four weeks, they start crafting themes and finding pictures for their “Mood Meter” poster, a staple of the fourth-grade curriculum. The meter, a color-coded grid with four quadrants, reflects a spectrum of emotions, ranging from low to high “pleasantness” and low to high energy. The Mustangs must choose a series of words within each quadrant or even create their own — “ballistic” and “feisty” are among the original suggestions in a whole group discussion — as they find corresponding photos for those emotions. The themes, much like the majority of the books, borrow inspiration from the animal kingdom, including Australian animals and ocean animals. Students crouch over iPads and screenshot images to drop into a Google Slides presentation, which they’ll eventually use to print out the photos for their posterboard.

The discussions are so animated, and the quest for photos so fastidious, that club members across the room appear baffled when they hear Miller sound a chime, which signals the end of the lesson. “I know,” Miller says, apologetically. “You want to keep working.” Such is the modus operandi among lifelong readers who have big stuff before them. 

 

 


 

Eighth Grade — Ben Michelman’s Classroom

What is the middle school experience if not four years of spontaneous argumentation? It is both developmentally appropriate and academically encouraged: DA Middle Schoolers learn in language arts how to use evidence and argumentation as a skill before choosing the most fitting style for their desired purpose and intended audience. In the case of Ben Michelman’s eighth-grade language arts class, arguing with style isn’t merely a lofty goal: It is sanctioned, and required.

Today’s class begins with a SPAR debate, an accessible format that introduces students to academic argumentation. The resolution du jour is seasonal: Summer is better than winter. Rem Frasher ’28 and Ari Patel ’28 stand at raised desks as they prepare to deliver their pro-summer statement. The negate camp, led by Kayla Cloninger ’28 and Jeremiah Gibbs ’28, faces their counterparts from their own standing desks as they prepare to defend winter. The rest of the class encircles the debating quartet with watchful eyes. Michelman divides the audience into groups that will assess the strength of each team according to the three standard categories of persuasion: ethos (trust), pathos (emotion) and logos (logic).

Each side has the opportunity to present a two-minute case, followed by a rebuttal and a 30-second summary to appeal to the judges. Frasher and Patel knew their eighth-grade audience when presenting the case for their season: There’s no school in summer. Heating and outerwear are also expensive, they say, which positions winter as a more costly season. Cloninger and Gibbs support winter by extolling the virtues, and merriment, of holidays. There’s also less sweating and fewer instances of heat stroke. The class erupts with bemusement during the rebuttal portion of the debate when Gibbs tells a story about the summer he stood in line for a ride at Kings Dominion amusement park. A patron fainted from the excessive heat, a fate that never would have befallen them, Gibbs says, in the cold embrace of winter. 

After a round of equitable applause, the class debates the merits of each argument as Michelman provides constructive feedback about the impact of the messaging. Cloninger invoking holiday cheer was a noteworthy appeal to pathos, Michelman says, and it might have landed even more emphatically with the audience had she discussed how holidays make everyone — in almost all cases — happier. Leah Silliman ’28 says the pro-winter faction could have invoked public opinion surveys that reflect favorable attitudes toward holidays. Michelman also presses each group, and the rest of the class, for specificity in their arguments: “Heating is more expensive than air conditioning” is a claim that needs a source, and “studies have shown” is too opaque for purposes of persuasion. And then there’s the advanced art of predicting the other side’s argument: The affirm camp invoked winter-induced frostbite, but Michelman says the winter camp could have anticipated that maneuver and responded that heat stroke, statistically, is more common than frostbite.

As the debaters return to their seats, the judges cast their votes with raised hands. Michelman smiles. It is a tie. Yet another reason to continue the argument.

 

 


 

Eleventh Grade — Erika McCarthy’s Classroom

There is a couplet on the wall above Erika McCarthy’s desk that accompanies art posters by Van Gogh and Klimt. There is more than one way to be a tree / There is more than one way to see a tree. “It’s an important reminder about the value of creative approaches, to both ourselves and our encounters with the world,” said McCarthy, an Upper School English teacher and co-lead advisor for the Class of 2026. McCarthy would know: She wrote the couplet.

It is a fitting metaphor for language arts at DA — and for McCarthy’s famed Passion Project, which her 11th-grade AP English Language and Composition class continues on an early Tuesday morning. The yearlong, independent writing project is a bastion of choice, creativity and verve. The topic? Entirely their choice. The format? Up to them. Can they reverse course if they no longer feel moved by their subject? Absolutely.

“We’re going to tailor this project to you,” McCarthy tells her class.

Today marks the second lesson within the initial exploration phase, in which every student pursues two possible topics through the lens of open-ended prompts  — ranging from a letter addressed to their grandmother to a chapter in a fake textbook about who does, and doesn’t, participate in their topic. They can also, naturally, choose a format that isn’t currently listed.

“Do not ask me what format they should be in,” McCarthy writes in her instructions, which are displayed on the monitor at the front of the room. “You should write them as if they are just for you.”

The 24 eligible topics, which students have scrawled on notecards, are equal parts incisive, enlightening and profound. The Life and Work of Emily Dickinson. How to Rehabilitate Knee Injuries. Why Music is Important. Our Generation’s Obsession with Aesthetics. How Pointe Shoes are Made. Korean Art since 1953. Gilmore Girls. Culture Clash. Life After Death. Britney Spears. “I have a lot of ideas,” Zara Miller ’25 writes on her card, which features “Culture Clash.” “These are just two of the top-9.”

The dozen 11th-graders have 25 uninterrupted minutes to respond to their chosen prompt. They hunch in unbroken concentration over spiral notebooks as Pachelbel’s “Canon and Gigue in D Major” drifts softly over the speakers. Afterward, they will process their entry for the day to internalize what they’ve learned from the exploration. They will even attend to the more practical matter of preparing for the course’s AP exam: McCarthy distributes a set of practice multiple-choice questions and reviews the meaning of an antecedent. 

But those 25 minutes — when writing utensils meet notebook paper and synapses fire without constraint — is the moment in which these Upper Schoolers will see, and be, as they wish. McCarthy filters between the four tables of three students each, and she prods a pair of students who appear stuck. “Keep going,” McCarthy says. “If you run into some questions, write the questions. Just keep writing.”

And so they do, with singular purpose, the words pouring from their pens and pencils and fingertips with such feverish fluidity.