To Innovate, or Not to Innovate . . . That is the Question
Beth Carlson has been an educator for 25 years, but her influence extends far beyond her Kennebunk High classroom. In November 2009 she was one of three Maine teachers who presented recommendations on teaching approaches at the annual meeting of the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE), a professional association for English language arts educators.
According to American College Testing (ACT), “one in every four students leaves college before completing sophomore year.” Carlson advocates strengthening the learning and teaching that occurs in college preparatory (CP) classes in order to lower these drop-out rates. She does this by “scaffolding” the skills traditionally taught in more rigorous Advanced Placement (AP) classes onto the CP curriculum. Some of these skills are analyzing literature by considering historical and philosophical issues; synthesizing information from multiple disciplines; and becoming self-directed learners.
According to Carlson, “scaffolding gives kids who may not have . . . the drive, habits of mind, or skills the chance to have a skill set broken down so that they can more easily acquire it.” She credits a friend with her operative approach—”What’s good for the ‘best’ should also be good for the rest.”
Carlson believes that when educators raise the bar, student performance rises to meet expectations. Her results thus far bear this out. “I have 5 students from college prep English (Grade 11) who are going to ‘bump it up’ to AP Language next year, and I recommended a few others from my CP ranks to AP Lit. The idea is to show kids they can do that level of work.” Matt, a junior in Carlson’s CP English class, comments, “Not only does she teach skills that I will be using in my future English or literature classes, but she is a motivator. She kept me going in this class, somehow she motivated me to do the work . . . to the best of my ability.”
Carlson assigned her CP students to analyze Hamlet’s soliloquy, “To be, or not to be,” using these new skills. First they viewed three versions of Hamlet as performed by Mel Gibson, Ethan Hawke, and Kenneth Branagh. Next they read, critiqued, and interpreted the soliloquy to produce their own analyses, and read literary criticism on the play. Finally, they discussed the different performances of Hamlet and debated about which interpretation best represented Shakespeare’s intent. According to Matt, “I would’ve never even understood one line of the soliloquy if it weren’t for me sitting down and reading line by line and translating each line. It was not an easy process for anyone in the class—it took us two whole classes to come up with a real definition for the whole thing. But it wasn’t just the teacher saying, ‘Here you go: translate!’ Ms. Carlson broke down the steps with us—how to look at each piece of it and read and analyze it. . . . After the discussion of this, my perspective . . . was completely different from when I started reading it.”
Beth Carlson almost did not make it to the meeting in Philadelphia. The office of the Maine Commissioner of Education had invited Carlson and initially intended to fund her participation in the conference. But then the state budget crises struck and funds evaporated. RSU#21 tried to step in to subsidize the trip, only to be hit with a $1M budget cut stemming from the state funding crisis. In the end, EFKA funds made the trip possible and brought Carlson’s innovations to a national audience of educational leaders.