AHS English Department Increases Diversity in the Curriculum

By Maya Pockrose

AHS English teachers piled into the classroom of Matthew Cincotta (a fellow AHS English teacher) after school one unseasonably warm October afternoon for one of their regular meetings to discuss classes and curricula. Chocolate-covered almonds circulated around the table as everybody got settled, talking and laughing, before Deborah Perry, the district English director, began the meeting.

As a goal, the Arlington Public Schools district strives to achieve cultural competency. According to the National Education Association, cultural competence is “the ability to successfully teach students who come from a culture or cultures different than our own” (NEA). Perry says that a goal of the English department at AHS is to “put an increased emphasis on voice and perspective” as well as to “help kids find their own voices, and see other people’s voices.”

At AHS, there is an emphasis on a “living curriculum” that is “always changing and morphing to the times,” in the words of Cincotta. Justin Bourassa feels that “it can always be better,” but the department is “getting much better representation in terms of protagonists [and] much better representation in terms of the authors and their identities, across all spectrums and all factors of identities.” But teachers also want students to feel included and seen even if the books do not feature characters who exactly match their own identities: Megan Miller says focusing on students’ voices provides “an opportunity for students to take their own unique perspective” and think about “what their voice can contribute, just like the character or the authors contributing a voice.”

The English Department is working hard to emphasize perspective. Bourassa clarifies that the department is not embracing different perspectives “simply to check boxes,” but rather they are choosing “good, powerful pieces of literature” that also stem from different origins. One course that particularly emphasizes these choices is the Missing Voices 12th grade course. In the curriculum for that course, teachers have been “broadening” the texts they use and have and “knocked walls down,” according to Bourassa. Perry notes how “in the last four years or so [the department has] consciously changed the senior Missing Voices course” to introduce new and different voices and texts.

Accessibility is also key to diversity in an English curriculum. Perry says that “even adding a graphic novel is another way to add diversity” and telling a story through visuals “is a whole other way of seeing.” And approach plays a key role, as well. “Even if it is an older piece of literature, the lens might be different dependent on the times,” explains Lauren Geiger. She adds that “your parents didn’t read Fahrenheit 451 the same way we are reading it now,” which is why older texts still hold value and have merit even today.

Though the English department is making great strides in adding different types of diversity, it is certainly a group effort that takes time and thought. Erin Bradley, emphasizes that she and other English teachers “all need to and … want to put in that effort to keep [the] curriculum fresh and keep it reflecting the society we see around us.” Bourassa brings up “the idea of ‘updating,’” and notes that “there are a lot of very contemporary texts that are also very good, teachable, powerful, meaningful texts.”

The AHS English curriculum is constantly evolving, and the department has not stopped examining their curriculum and making changes as everyone sees fit. This aligns with the National Education Association’s assertion that “educators become culturally competent over time” and not “as a result of a single day of training, or reading a book, or taking a course.” And the teachers at AHS are certainly putting in that time and effort. The district as a whole is very supportive of this initiative as well; Geiger feels that “the great thing about Arlington is that we’re, as professionals, really afforded the creative space and time to focus on what we teach and how we approach it.” And none of these changes are made arbitrarily or artificially; as Bourassa says, the department is not “doing anything for the sake of doing it.”

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Macbeth Takes AHS

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By Connor Rempe

Mr. Michael Byrne, AHS’s very own drama teacher, flinches whenever the word Macbeth is uttered in his theater. Afterall, theater superstition dictates that unless you are performing or rehearsing Macbeth, the word is taboo. Most people would think that this would present an interesting challenge to those trying to perform the show. Mr. Byrne is not most people.

The Arlington High School production of Macbeth wrapped up after its final show on November 17th. When selecting a fall show Byrne has a cycle to go by: Classic American, Contemporary American, Shakespeare and finally Non-English Classic. This year was a Shakespeare year. In the past Mr. Byrne has stuck to comedies, however, this year he went the other way. Macbeth is one of Shakespeare’s most famous and bloodiest tragedies and presented some interesting challenges for Byrne and his cast.

The process of putting on the show begins in the spring. Byrne picked Macbeth thinking it would resonate with today’s audience. He thought that Macbeth “would be interesting in our current … environment to look at a play that is in many ways about politics and power and who does and doesn’t have power.”

rom there the next step was to look into what was going on in Shakespeare’s world while Macbeth was being written. Perhaps the most notable event of the time was the failing of the Gunpowder Plot, a plan by English Catholic to overthrow King James I, in 1605. Byrne found that Shakespeare’s work was emblematic of that event. “ In 1616 [Shakespeare] wrote [Macbeth], Othello and Lear… all three of which are pretty agressive and ask what does it mean to be a good person and what do you do when bad things happen?”

The next part of the process for  Byrne was to cut down the play from its original form. While this may seem surprising to many, Byrne finds that times have changed since Shakespeare’s day that it is necessary to cut down many of his works. In fact in the case of Macbeth, “I ended up cutting more than I kept,” said Byrne, “ I wanted it to have this forward movement of inevitably.” The show ended up running about 90 minutes with no intermission. An uncut version of Macbeth would probably run about two and half hours.

Auditions for the show took place around the second week of school. Students who wanted to audition had to recite a memorized Shakespeare monologue. Although they are welcome to, Byrne prefers that prospective cast members do not choose a monologue from the play they are auditioning for. He says “If you do the piece in a way that is far away from my understanding of the character, then that puts you further away from the world of the play.” Byrne also appreciates when students do research to pick monologues that fit the play they are auditioning for.  He says it shows imagination. This year’s audition process brought in more freshman than any other class which has Byrne excited for the future of the drama program.

Most high school students see Shakespeare as a dirty word that they want to avoid at all costs. However, Mr. Byrne finds that after the first few weeks of rehearsal his cast realized, “Oh this language isn’t intimidating,”. Once that happens, Byrne thinks that high schoolers, “sink their teeth into it, in a way that someone who is trying to get it right or is precious about the language might not.” By the end of the play, says Byrne, “ I think every actor on stage spoke Shakespeare and fully understood what they and the other people on stage were saying.”

After months of preparation, Byrne and his cast performed the show which was certainly thought provoking and fun to watch. The audience got to watch as Macbeth, portrayed by senior Miles Shapiro, slowly descended into madness and corruption. The show reached its climactic conclusion in an epic fight sequence that involved nearly the entire cast jumping off the stage and running into the audience. It is safe to say Byrne certainly achieved his goal of a 90 minute thrill ride.

At the end of it all Mr. Byrne found himself seeing the characters differently than he had before. “Despite the killing, I think McB could’ve been a good leader, ” says Byrne, “When I started I thought that this was a play about a killer but also I learned it is a play about the arbitrary nature of who has power in the world.” That is the reason  Byrne keeps on doing Shakespeare, it seems to change every time it is performed. “ I think the brilliance of Shakespeare is that over the past 400 years…the lense of society at the time of the production allows you to see things in a different way”. While AHS’s production in Macbeth may just be another in a long line of productions, given the lense of today’s society, it certainly was an poignant and important experience for audience members and the cast alike.

Anxiety Management at Arlington High School

By Grace Walters

Stress-ridden students, as well as the school administration, are faced with a big question: How can students manage their anxiety? Although there is no simple answer to this question, students and staff have shared various methods that they believe will help diminish stress.

Most Arlington High School students experience moderate- to- high levels of stress due to their overwhelming schedules, many of which consist of advanced classes, homework, sports, clubs, jobs, college applications, and other time-consuming activities. “[Anxiety] is such a trapping feeling,” says an anonymous AHS student. “Sometimes I feel like the whole world will come collapsing down on me if I can’t figure out how to balance everything.”

Reducing The Workload

Many students would agree that school work, combined with other commitments, is the epicenter of their anxiety. According to sophomore Anouska Oke, “Exams and tests are particularly stressful—especially when the teacher doesn’t give us sufficient warning or ‘prep’ time.”

Furthermore, Oke believes that teachers could help reduce students’ stress by “giving more supplemental resources” to students prior to an exam and “communicating and listening to students” more effectively. Oke also believes that the weekend is “a time for students to power-down” and de-stress. Therefore, teachers should minimize the amount of homework they assign on the weekends.

David Conneely, an Honors Biology and Physiology teacher, believes that the amount of work he assigns his students is reasonable and manageable.

When asked the question: ‘What might you suggest to stress-ridden students who feel inundated by the amount of work they are assigned?”, Conneely responded in a statement:

I think time management is a big issue for all people (young people and adults). For example, when I am grading a project I often give myself a time frame for each project (e.g., five minutes). I start a timer when I start grading the next project so I can track how efficient I am being with my time. It is easy for anyone to spend too much time on a project or assignment or to get distracted. By timing myself, it forces me to be efficient and to get my work done more quickly. I think students could use a similar approach. Distractions are a big problem for people today. A parent recently told me their son asked for their parents to hold on to their phone in the evenings so they would not get distracted while doing homework at night. Such an approach (or a similar approach involving removing distractions) can be helpful for students to get work done quickly, so they can rest and get enough sleep.

Learning How to Relax

Among the numerous Physical Education electives AHS has to offer, one in particular stands out. The Relaxation elective—taught by Kimberly Visco and Lauren Geiger—is a unique course that is widely appreciated by students. The students enrolled in Relaxation spend two classes each week on any relaxation practice such as restorative breathing techniques, meditation, and yoga.

The students who take Relaxation also look at nature theory for body healing, mindful eating, and using hobbies as a means to relax. “Basically, everything comes down to the idea that the mind and the body are inextricably linked,” says Geiger.  “If we can focus both of those things at the same time, then hopefully, in moments of crisis, we can better contain ourselves and relax.”

According to Geiger, it is ideal that the students leave Relaxation feeling unruffled. However, she explains that “sometimes that doesn’t happen because skills and practices can be involved and hard. However, the ultimate goal is that [the students] leave at least with an option for something they can fall back on when they do get stressed out.”

So far, the student feedback for the elective—which was introduced to students for the first time this year—has been overwhelmingly positive. Many of the students signed up for the course were unaware of the enriching experience it had to offer. “I honestly signed up for [Relaxation] because I thought it would be easy, and I would just get to do nothing […] It’s actually really centering,” says an anonymous student.

For sophomore Anouska Oke, sometimes the most effective way to de-stress is to take a break. “In the middle of a project, I try to take a break and do things I enjoy, like reading, playing guitar, or going on my phone,” says Oke.

Oke also says that sports and athleticism are an outlet for relaxation. She describes track and soccer as “an escape where you don’t have to think about school and other pressures.” That being said, Oke admits that some aspects of sports can be stressful, too, saying, “you’re worried about your skill level compared to other people and whether you’ll be able to make varsity. I know a lot of people worry about being cut, too.” Many student-athletes agree that the benefits and joy of playing a sport outweigh the occasional stress it generates.

Relax with Technology

In this new era of advanced technology, most high school students own smartphones. By downloading meditation apps like ‘Calm’ and ‘Headspace’, breathing techniques, meditation practices, and audible sleep-aids are readily available to most mobile phone users.

“Teenagers, being attached to their phones, can surely benefit from this,” says Geiger.

Wellness Day

On December 12, 2018, Arlington High School will hold its second annual Wellness Day, an all-day interactive conference designed to educate students about emotional and physical wellness. Wellness Day offers a diverse selection of educational workshops such as Coloring for Relaxation, Mindfulness for Everyone, and Cooperative Board Games.

In addition to just discussing how to manage school stress, many of the workshops tackle more sensitive topics such as dating violence, grief and loss, teen mental health, stigma, the dangers of social media, and depression. Administrators agree that these topics are important and prevalent in the lives of teenagers; as such, it is important that the conference addresses them.

Taking the Time

Most mental health professionals recommend that people, particularly teenagers, devote a part of their day to relaxation and self-reflection. “That’s something we talk a lot about in [Relaxation],” says Geiger. “But the students feel like they have no time, or that they’ll only have the time if they take the Relaxation course.” Geiger believes that “taking the time to decompress is invaluable,” and that stressed students should look to relaxation techniques to help them manage their anxiety.

 

Laramie in Arlington

 

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By Nicole Rivera

Lightbulbs hung above the space, a chair for each cast member in its place, five microphones near the edge of the stage. The lights go down in the theater and come flooding onto the stage. Hundreds of audience members wait in their seats, then start to applaud when the actors crowd the stage to present a story about a community and the horrific event that impacted it.

In 1998, in the town of Laramie Wyoming, Matthew Shepard, a young man in college, had become comatose after being brutally assaulted and beaten by Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson. After being tied to a split rail fence and left to die in the cold of the night, Shepard was found by a biker passing by early the next morning. He died just a few days later on October 12th, 1998. His tragic and gruesome death was one of the worst anti-gay crimes in American history and led to a major media outbreak.

Moisés Kaufman and members of the Tectonic Theater Group traveled to Laramie Wyoming and conducted over 200 interviews with the citizens of the small town a month after the murder. These interviews were turned into monologues for The Laramie Project, first presented by the Tectonic Theater Group in 2000. The play has since been performed at venues across the nation including colleges, community theaters, and at our very own Arlington High School.

The play was directed by Michael Byrne, the head of the drama department. He had directed The Laramie Project once before ten years ago around the ten year anniversary of Shepherd’s passing. Byrne said “I thought I would never direct it because it’s such a difficult subject but I realized it’s not the Matthew Shepard project It’s The Laramie Project, and being in a school like Arlington meant there was tons of support from the community. When I realized Matthew Shepard was murdered twenty years ago I saw it as an opportunity to honor his life, and the work that his parents have done over the past twenty years.”

Since his passing, Matthew’s parents, Judy and Dennis Shepard, have been political activists, establishing The Matthew Shepard Foundation in 1998 and contributing to the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2009. His mother Judy Shepard wrote The Meaning of Matthew, a beautiful memoir about Matthew’s life and what came after.

Mr. Byrne’s previous production of The Laramie Project had been a school play performed by students, however, this year’s production consisted of not only students but alumni and teachers as well. “It was really powerful to be a part of,” Lianna Bessette said of her experience acting in Laramie. “The moment when the audience joined in singing Amazing Grace, I was not expecting it, and I almost started crying on stage.”

Alumni dating back twenty years returned to their roots at Arlington High to act in this play. “I was a mess,” Mr. Byrne describes his emotion upon seeing everyone in the auditorium: “I was fixing something in the tech booth and I looked up and everyone was here.”

Nathan Mallin, an AHS alumnus and a member of the cast, spoke about his thoughts on the production: “It was really special to have all those people from different generations come together for one day, not worrying about perfection, but to make sure those words get heard.” The Laramie Project brought not only the people of Laramie close together as a community, but revealed that Arlington has the potential to come together in a very similar way.