Editor’s note: “Hall Passages” is a weekly education feature in the Missoulian. Each week on a rotating basis, K-12 education reporter Jamie Kelly visits a private or public school in the Missoula Valley to see what’s new in the halls and walls of our learning institutions. Last week, Kelly spent some time at Sentinel High School.

Emily Dickinson at 7:45 a.m. is a workout.

In first period Advanced Placement English at Sentinel High School last week, students began poring over the American poet's "I Dreaded That First Robin, So" under the tutelage of English teacher Sarah Pohl.

There are so many ways to interpret Dickinson's lament of the coming of spring that a quiz on its meaning and literary devices seems almost ludicrous.

And yet, there they were, 12 multiple-choice questions, each with only one right answer.

After 15 minutes, the scores were tabulated. None in this class of 25 got all 12 correct. One got 11, two got 10, but most scores ranged from seven to nine (mark down a nine for a Missoulian reporter and 1986 Sentinel graduate).

And here's the lesson that Pohl was trying to impart on this Friday morning:

"Just stick to the simple meaning," said the teacher. "Don't go reading things into it, like, ‘Oh, she had an abortion.' "

Because whatever Dickinson's motivation for writing this poem, only one thing can be said for certain. And that is what? Pohl asked.

A student raised her hand.

"She doesn't like spring."

"Yes," said Pohl. "Dickinson does not like spring."

AP classes are offered in core subjects across the Missoula County Public Schools district, but no high school offers more course-hours - and to more students - than Sentinel. Sentinel is also the only high school to offer AP biology.

The classes are the most advanced offered at the high-school level, and passing their year-end tests will give students college credit.

In fact, the quiz on "I Dreaded That First Robin, So" was pulled right from a past exam, and giving it to her students was Pohl's method of showing them what they can expect from the AP tests.

"Get to the essential understanding," she told her class. "The simple meaning."

And then the class moved on to "The Kite Runner" - one of three summer reading assignments the students received - and its author's uses of metaphor and descriptive language.


Advanced Placement classes made their debut in the early 1990s within MCPS.

Unlike honors courses, which are still offered, they are accelerated to the extreme, their coursework and expectations more akin to what is required on a college campus than at a high school. Hence, the awarding of college credit if a student passes the College Board AP exams given in May.

The development of an AP curriculum within the schools is largely steered by the teachers themselves.

"The culture at Sentinel has been built over time," said Ray Curtis, who teaches AP government at Sentinel and has worked as an MCPS high school teacher for 25 years. It was Sue Babcock, a retired Sentinel teacher, who was responsible for the development of Sentinel's AP government courses.

In Curtis' AP classes, students get much of the same curriculum as those in his regular classes. However, the expectations and level of student involvement in the subject matter are markedly different.

Students in his courses are expected to analyze and interpret the historical lessons through a modern lens, with a keen understanding of current events and political developments.

So in Curtis' AP class during second period at Sentinel last Friday, the teacher led off the day's learning with multiple modern topics, including a Time magazine graphic of the U.S.-Soviet arms race during the 20th century.

Before that was a news update that Virginia had carried out a death sentence on a woman.

"So," he asked his class. "The death penalty. Is it legal in the U.S.?"

"Yes," was the general agreement.

"Yes, it is."

And what about this "lame duck" phrase you hear a lot of? And how does it relate to the Democrats' move to postpone a vote on Bush-era tax cuts until after the Nov. 2 election?

A student raised his hand and got it right.

" ‘Lame duck' is the time after an election," he said.

"That's right!" Curtis rang out. "Now the Democrats don't have to worry about (re-election) in a lame-duck session, because there really is no accountability."

That led to a brief discussion of - and handout on - Machiavelli's "The Prince."

It was a whirlwind 50 minutes, with Curtis interjecting his thoughts and challenging his students' insights every minute, even during an educational film about Charles I of England, whose reign seemed to be in big trouble when last we left him.

"So what are they going to do?" Curtis asked.

"Execute him!" a student said.

"But you don't execute kings, do you? Do you?"


And of course, Charles I was beheaded.

Students who took their eyes off the screen might look up to see a quote by Abraham Lincoln, "It is a sin to be silent when it is your duty to protest," or a Billings Gazette headline from 1972 that screamed the news of the murder of the Israeli Olympic wrestling team.

Why all this information overload? These quotes, these headlines, this constant questioning, these little nuggets of knowledge, like "another word for representative government is a ‘republic' "?

"I don't want you to be self-absorbed," Curtis told his class. "I want you to know what's going on in the world."

Reach Jamie Kelly at 523-5254 or at jkelly@missoulian.com.


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