In the early 1960s, CHS principal Nathaniel Ober began advocating writing as a core skill of a successful member in society. It was this thought which planted the seed that became the conferenced English program at CHS.
Ober wished to hire an extra faculty member just for the purpose of evaluating and discussing a student’s writing one-on-one. This single teacher held conferences for individual writers during the 1961-62 school year with rewarding results.
By the end of that school year, there was a noticeably positive response from Clayton students as well as coherent essays by the dozens.
Administrators along with the Board of Education took this as a success and worked to expand the program over the next few years, eventually creating the system in place today.
Flash forward 50 years and the program thrives, experienced by every student to walk the halls of CHS. There are many factors which take place to allow this program to be active, many of which are unknown to students, such as annual cost and a teacher’s personal time.
Specifically, one can look at the expenses through the number of English teachers at Clayton. Whereas a normal math or history teacher is in the classroom five out of eight daily class periods, English teachers only have three classes per day, a schedule which opens valuable time that can then be used for individual conferences. The limited number of classes per teacher creates a demand for more teachers in the English department. While there are only 12 and 10 teachers in the math and history departments respectively, there are 17 English teachers currently employed at CHS. This increased number quickly translates into thousands of dollars of additional district spending.
Additionally, the importance of a teacher’s time must be considered. On average, a normal English teacher has 20 students per class. Multiply this by three and you get 60 essays and conferences at one time.
On this, the 50th anniversary, the development and progress of the English conferencing program at Clayton is tangible, yet one thing has not changed: the benefits.
American and AP Literature teacher John Ryan testifies wholeheartedly to these benefits.
“Within the world of composition … giving students that one-one-one attention to their writing, ten times a year … we can see the growth in writing just across one year,” Ryan said. “The ability to write coherently … you’re going to have to do that in work. I don’t care if you’re a scientist, you’re going to have to write a research grant, if you’re a lawyer you’re going to have to write briefs, if you’re a police officer you’ll have to write crime reports.”
Sarah Murphy, Clayton alumna, has reaped the benefits of the program.
With a degree in Art History, a MA in Education Advocacy, and pursuing a PHD in education, Murphy certainly values the education provided by the conferencing program.
“I realized how special the program was when I went to college since so many of my classmates, even though they got into this top 30 college, they didn’t have anywhere near the writing skills that I did,” Murphy said. “I think the more exposure you can have in adolescence with people that aren’t adolescents, the better.”
According to Murphy, studies show that during adolescence, the teenage brain is in a stage of synaptic exuberance which only occurs twice in one’s life: adolescence and between the ages of one and three.
“You’re learning so much and absorbing so much that everything that you do has so much of an impact on you,” she said. “Being in a situation where it normalizes receiving criticism, constructive criticism, is so valuable.”
Sean Rochester, Honors American Literature and College Prep English teacher, is also a Clayton alumnus. Having come full circle as a former recipient of the conference program and now as a teacher, Rochester has a comprehensive view of the program.
“The program just embedded in me and my peers that writing is a process.”
As a teacher, Rochester has seen the difference between a Clayton student with the program’s help and his previous public students without.
“The average student did not grow that much from the beginning of the year to the end,” Rochester said. “Schools like to talk about differentiation, personalized learning. It is during this conference moment that a teacher can offer personalized feedback that the kid needs for his or her own paper, so there’s no cookie-cutter feedback being delivered, everything is in essence homemade.”
The conferenced English program is quintessentially part of the Clayton learning experience and is an invaluable resource Clayton provides.
Murphy encourages current Clayton students to not take such a rich program for granted, saying, “Never skip a conference.”